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County police agencies not pursuing illegal immigrants

Photo: Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry

While the Trump Administration continues to seek increased cooperation by local law enforcement agencies with federal immigration officials, police leaders here mostly view public safety as their primary focus in dealing with people living in Indian River County illegally.

“If your only crime is that you are here illegally, then you are not our focus,” said Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry, whose community is nearly 80 percent Hispanic.

An officer with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had just stopped by his office to check in, and Touchberry said working with federal agents is one tool to achieve an overall goal of protecting everyone from criminals – both those who have documentation to live and work in the United States, and those who do not.

The police chief came under some scrutiny a couple of months ago after five Mexican immigrants were arrested in connection with a prostitution ring at a local residence. Those men were in the country illegally and they were referred to federal immigration officials. 

“That was a crime problem,” Touchberry said. “We eliminate that crime by removing from the area people who are engaging in the crime.”

Fellsmere Police Department’s priority is the same as the federal government’s, he said. “If you are here illegally and you are violating the law, then we are going to do our part to make sure federal immigration officials are aware of where you are. If you come to the U.S. to commit crimes, we don’t want you here. We don’t want you in our community.”

But to be tough on crime and also have the community’s trust is a sensitive balance, Touchberry said – especially in overwhelmingly Hispanic Fellsmere.

The police chief often meets with the leaders of local agriculture associations to make sure people know they can call police and report a crime. Unless they are participating in illegal activity as well, it is unlikely they will be turned over to immigration authorities, he said.

“This isn’t about immigration,” Touchberry said, “This is about preventing crime and improving the quality of life.”

Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey, however, takes a slightly different tack. He said his department almost always informs ICE of someone’s undocumented status, even when if they are a victim of a crime.  “You don’t get anything done without cooperation,” he said. “From our end, it’s information sharing.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that law enforcement is simply casting a wide net and rounding up people who are here illegally, said Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar. The county will hold undocumented people who have been arrested in connection of a crime for 48 hours to allow immigration agents to take custody.

There were just seven people in the Indian River County Jail awaiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a recent Thursday in August, Loar said. They came from places like Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. Battery and strangulation, the sale of heroin, money laundering, burglary and the lewd molestation of a minor were some of the alleged offenses.

“It’s not our business to round up non-U.S. citizens,” the sheriff said. “But it is our business to detain them if they have committed an egregious crime.”

The National Public Safety Partnership was established in June under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The program enhances support given to state and local agencies from the DOJ for the investigation, prosecution and deterrence of violent crime, especially as it relates to gun violence, gangs and drug trafficking.

The Department of Justice announced Aug. 3 that in order to participate in the federal government’s new Safety Partnership Program, local jurisdictions must show a commitment to reducing crime stemming from illegal immigration. The announcement is part of an ongoing push by the Trump administration to increase deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Nearly half a million undocumented immigrants call South Florida home, according to a 2017 analysis by the Pew Research Center. Most are in the Miami region, and that metropolitan area has the fifth-largest illegal immigrant population in the United States.