The Broward Sheriff's Office is one of at least 46 departments in the state that have requested the Florida Sheriffs’ Association (FSA) reach out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on their behalf for assistance with a new ICE program, according to FSA emails.
ICE's new initiative — the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program — was launched in May and claims to cloak local sheriffs and deputies with federal authority and legal protection to execute ICE's version of warrants to detain undocumented individuals. The emails were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the nonprofit research group Political Research Associates.
The new program seeks to give more leeway to sheriffs and deputies to detain immigrants by shielding the officers from lawsuits. To participate, sheriffs must send their deputies to a day of ICE training. After the session, the volunteer deputies "receive federal credentials that reflect their authority," according to an ICE media release. The WSO program treats trained officers as federal employees and allows the U.S. Department of Justice to defend them if they are ever sued, according to a copy of the program's memorandum of understanding.
The Broward Sheriff's Office did not respond to New Times' requests for comment. Other sheriffs on the list said they planned to train anywhere from two to 25 officers. Pinellas County, the first to adopt the program, has had 40 deputies trained, at least some of whom have been issuing warrants under WSO.
"They have issued some warrants, and it’s going fine, no issues," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told New Times by phone. (ICE and the FSA did not respond to requests for comment.)
A May 15 email from FSA Deputy Executive Director Matt Dunagan says sheriffs in 46 counties — and one county-run jail in Okaloosa — have expressed interest in the WSO program. The counties are Bay, Bradford, Brevard, Broward, Calhoun, Charlotte, Clay, Columbia, DeSoto, Dixie, Flagler, Franklin, Gilchrist, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Hernando, Highlands, Holmes, Indian River, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lake, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Monroe, Nassau, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, Suwannee, Taylor, Wakulla, Walton, and Washington.
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"The... list will be sent to ICE later today, and they will work with [Florida Sheriffs Association] staff over the next few weeks to identify local training sites for this one-day training," Dunagan wrote. "ICE will be working to set up regional training sites very soon."
Following the passage of the state's highly controversial bill to ban sanctuary cities, SB 168, the FSA — which strongly supported the legislation — wrote that the section of the law that forces all cities and public agencies to "use best efforts to support the enforcement of federal immigration law" means all sheriffs who operate jails must have at least one of four agreements with ICE, including WSO.
That element of the law is now being challenged in a lawsuit by immigrant-rights groups and the City of South Miami.