U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seize a man from a Lake Worth food-sharing event for the homeless in 2017.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seize a man from a Lake Worth food-sharing event for the homeless in 2017.
Courtesy of Food Not Bombs

Civil Rights Groups Issue "Travel Warning" for Immigrants in Florida

Donald Trump's deportation forces appear to be using Florida as a testing laboratory to devise new and ever-more draconian ways to clamp down on documented and undocumented immigrants nationwide. Last month, a group of Central and North Florida sheriffs announced plans to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on a pilot project designed to detain immigrants in jail for even longer stretches of time, for example.

Given that ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents across Florida seem to be itching to detain black and brown people, a coalition of 21 Florida activist groups and civil rights organizations have issued a "travel warning" for immigrants and people of color throughout the state. The groups say that, considering no region saw a bigger jump in ICE apprehensions in 2017 than Florida, immigrants should take great caution before visiting the Sunshine State, especially if they plan to travel through an airport or bus station.

"In light of these facts, all immigrants are urged to reconsider visiting Florida and especially recommended to avoid high-risk areas, including ports, airports, and Greyhound stations," warns the coalition, led by the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), the Council of American-Islamic Relations Florida, and the Florida Women's March. "While a boycott is not being recommended at this time, travelers to Florida are being asked to use discretion, understand their risks, and seek legal advice."

The groups will hold news conferences in Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami tomorrow to announce the travel warning. The idea of issuing a nongovernmental warning to immigrant visitors isn't unprecedented — the American Civil Liberties Union issued a similar warning in March 2017 to immigrants visiting Texas, after that state passed a bill that lets police officers check the immigration status of anyone they pull over during a traffic stop.

The Florida rights groups give three reasons for their own travel warning. Most notable, ICE announced a new "pilot" detention project based in Florida last month that was transparently designed to skirt basic civil rights law. ICE also asks police forces to hold immigrants in local jails for the agency even if those immigrants have not been charged with crimes. Multiple courts have held that this practice violates the U.S. Constitution, so last month, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gulatieri announced in a news conference that he had helped ICE design a new program that would allow the agency to detain immigrants "legally" in local jails in order to prevent "civil rights lawsuits."

Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan visited Pinellas County January 17 to announce the new program, which ICE developed with the help of the National Sheriff's Assocation and the Major County Sheriffs of America. So far, only 17 Florida sheriffs (and none in South Florida) have agreed to hold ICE detainees under new "basic ordering agreements," but ICE says the program will likely expand if it works. ("Success" in this case basically means "finds enough of a legal loophole to avoid lawsuits.") Miami-Dade County also infamously became the first major metropolitan area in the nation to comply with Trump's 2017 order banning so-called sanctuary cities.

In the meantime, the Florida immigrant-rights groups warn that border agents seem to be sweeping the state's airports, train platforms, and bus stations for undocumented people. The practice isn't new — Barack Obama's administration actually deported a far greater number of immigrants than Trump has so far. But anti-deportation groups also heaped scorn on Obama for the same issue, and videos have shown ICE and CBP agents under Trump repeatedly raiding buses.

Last month, FLIC released two videos of Florida CBP agents raiding Greyhound buses at local stations. Border agents wound up pulling a Jamaican grandmother and a Trinidadian man off. The Immigrant Coalition plans to protest at a Greyhound station in Fort Lauderdale tomorrow to demand the company stop allowing "immigration raids targeting people for simply riding the bus."

"In January, sheriffs from 17 Florida counties announced plans to work more closely than ever with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target immigrants for deportation," the groups warn. "But even before this new deportation scheme, Florida already had a dramatic spike in the number of ICE arrests, the highest in the country, and videos of a Jamaican grandmother being profiled and detained on a Greyhound bus and a man from Trinidad being dragged away from a bus in handcuffs have been viewed by millions of people across the world."

The organizations encourage immigrants — especially the undocumented — to call FLIC's Immigrant Hotline at 888-600-5762 for information about "their constitutional rights when in contact with law enforcement or border patrol" before traveling through the Sunshine State until further notice.

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