Report calls for Collier deputies to cease immigration enforcement

Fort Myers News Press
By: Janine Zeitlin
Published: February 26, 2009
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A national report released today calls for the end to a program that gives local law agencies immigration enforcement powers, arguing that Latino population growth has fueled its rise rather than high crime rates. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office was among the first agencies in the nation in the program in which deputies perform functions of Immigration and Customs and Enforcement.

“The program has concentrated in high Latino population states,” said Aarti Shahani, lead author of “Local Democracy on ICE,” a report by Justice Strategies, part of the progressive research organization Tides Center in California. “Why would you pilot this project in places that are not even in high crime regions?”

The Collier unit doesn’t do regular patrols in Lee County, but authorities do assist ICE in operations in the county, enforcers said.

A local immigration attorney concurred with the recommendation to dissolve the units while a Collier sheriff’s chief defended the program and hailed it as a success.

The Lee sheriff’s office does not have the same powers and is waiting to see how the program works.

The report asks the Justice Department to investigate the program for racial profiling.

Their data analysis shows that by 2008, 61 percent of participating agencies had violent and property crime indices lower than the national average while 87 percent had Latino population growth higher than the national average.

Such was the case in Collier, according to report data. From 2000-06, the violent crime rate dipped 20 percent and property crimes fell 44 percent. In the same time, the Latino population spiked by 61 percent.

The report argues that traffic violators and day laborers have been prime targets, though that wasn’t the intent stated by ICE.

Chief Jim Bloom, head of the department under which the Collier program falls, says the agency has safeguards to prevent racial profiling and the unit doesn’t set up workplace raids or roadside arrests.

“Everybody’s asked the same question: ‘Are you a legal resident or not?’” Bloom said.

The unit ferrets out illegal immigrants booked in jail and does historical research on individuals. Since the unit began in October 2007 and through ‘08, deputies had processed 1,080 illegal immigrants. On average, those picked up through investigations had three prior felonies, data showed.

“I don’t think that’s a failure,” Bloom said. “It’s working phenomenally well for us.” Lee Sheriff Mike Scott said his office maintains a tight relationship with immigration authorities.

“We have close working relationships with other agencies to include ICE and all undocumented, foreign-born individuals we come into contact with are immediately referred to ICE,” Scott said in a statement.

Fort Myers immigration attorney Ricardo Skerrett praised Lee for skippng the program.

“I think it’s a disaster,” he said. “What happens is that people are not reporting crime and not willing to serve as witnesses in the event of the commission of a crime because they’re fearful of being deported.”

ICE referred a request for comment to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond Wednesday.