No sanctuary cities in Florida? That’s not as settled as Andrew Gillum claims

Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran debate sanctuary cities on Feb. 13, 2018.
Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran debate sanctuary cities on Feb. 13, 2018.

The policies of so-called sanctuary cities are among the most controversial in the national immigration debate. But Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum says there are no such cities in Florida, despite Republican rhetoric.

Gillum debated the issue with Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who hasn’t officially declared his candidacy but is expected to jump in after the current legislative session, on Feb. 13.

Moderators posed this question from a Floridian watching the debate: "Since when do municipalities and states get to choose which federal laws they will enforce?"

"First of all, we should enforce all of the legal justifiable laws that exist on the books, and we do that, by the way. Anyone who would suggest that we don’t follow the law is simply mistaken," Gillum responded. "There is not a sanctuary city in the state of Florida. At all. There’s not even a  legal definition of what a sanctuary city is here in the state of Florida or quite frankly anywhere."

Whether Florida has sanctuary cities is not as settled as Gillum claimed.

It’s difficult to speak in absolutes when discussing sanctuary cities, because as Gillum said, there is no formal definition. The term can be used to make either negative or positive arguments about local policies, said Francesca Menes, Florida state coordinator for Local Progress, a national network of local elected officials working on social issues, including immigration protection.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank favoring low levels of immigration, for example, lists West Palm Beach, Clay and Alachua counties as sanctuary cities. But none of these jurisdictions agreed their practices amount to "sanctuary" policy.

The fluidity of the definition plus unsettled legal challenges make it hard to determine if Florida has sanctuary cities. So we won’t rate this claim on the Truth-O-Meter this time.

Here’s a rundown of Florida jurisdictions that have been under scrutiny, so readers can make up their own minds about whether their policies amount to "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants accused or convicted of crimes.

Justice Department claims West Palm Beach ‘appears to restrict’ information sharing

The U.S. Justice Department flagged West Palm Beach as a city that "may" be in violation of federal law and fit into its general category of a sanctuary city. But it has not made a final determination.

Following President Donald Trump’s promise to withhold federal funds from so-called "sanctuary cities," the department in November sent letters to West Palm Beach and 28 other jurisdictions, questioning the legality of their policies for dealing with immigration authorities.

A requirement for receiving the department’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grant is in compliance with Section 1373, which says federal, state or local government entities or officials may not prohibit or restrict the exchange of information with federal immigration officers regarding the citizenship or immigration status of any individual.

According to the Justice Department, sections of West Palm Beach’s "Welcoming City" policy "may" be in violation of that federal law, putting grant funds in jeopardy.

The city’s policy says that no city agent or agency shall request information or investigate or assist in the investigation of citizenship or immigration status, or disclose information regarding the citizenship or immigration status of any person — unless required by state, federal or local laws or by the courts.

Unsatisfied with the city’s response, the Justice Department sent another letter in January to West Palm Beach, saying it "remains concerned" about the city’s practices and how they might be interpreted.

In turn, West Palm Beach on Feb. 6 filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department and asked a federal court to declare its policy compliant with all federal laws.

The Justice Department sent a similar letter to Miami-Dade County, but later said it found "no evidence" that it was out of compliance with Section 1373.

Other jurisdictions under scrutiny

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement weekly report cited Clay and Alachua counties as "non-cooperative jurisdictions" that failed to honor detainer requests in early 2017. However, ICE has suspended its reports amid complaints from multiple jurisdictions about errors in its data.

And the county sheriff’s offices said they are tough on illegal immigration.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office told PolitiFact Florida that Sheriff Darryl Daniels uses all resources available to enforce immigration laws.

Clay County in June 2017 partnered with ICE for the 287(g) program, allowing officers to "assist the federal government to deport illegal aliens who commit crimes locally," said Sgt. Keith Smith, Clay County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

At the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, the policy is to notify ICE anytime someone booked into the facility was born in another country, said spokesman Art Forgey.

"This has always been the policy and has never changed," Forgey said. "If ICE wants to speak with someone born in a foreign country while they are in our jail, they can."

What Alachua won’t do, however, is hold foreign-born detainees "any longer than what is court sanctioned," Forgey said.

Forgey said it’s unclear why ICE listed Alachua County in the agency’s declined detainer report.

"The truth of the matter is that ICE sent those detainers and the suspects were in our jail for several weeks. ICE didn’t ever come to question them," Forgey said. "How we declined five detainers in ICE’s eyes, I do not know."

Matt Dunagan, deputy executive director of operations of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the association did not know of any sheriff not cooperating with ICE.

Florida House bill targets agencies that limit or prevent ICE compliance

A fight over sanctuary cities is brewing in the state Capitol over HB 9, which, among other things, would prohibit policies that limit or prevent compliance with an ICE detainer request.

The ambiguity and absence of a formal sanctuary cities definition makes it difficult to enumerate Florida jurisdictions that way, but HB 9 could affect communities in Florida, said Shalini Agarwal, managing attorney for the Florida office for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"In many counties it will definitely have an impact because (the bill) defines sanctuary policy so broadly," Agarwal said.

An Immigrant Legal Resource Center report evaluated policies adopted by jurisdictions across the country on local involvement in immigration enforcement.

It identified several Florida counties as ones that generally decline detainers, and also found that other counties offer limited assistance to federal immigration officials. One example of limited assistance is when a county is willing to notify ICE of someone in custody, but not hold anyone for transfer to ICE custody.