As a result of the recent changes in Washington, immigration reform has become a significant topic of concern for many Americans. The changes in direction and lack of clarity from the federal government seem to open a revolving door for local law enforcement agencies simply trying to keep their own communities safe and insulated from violent crime. The fallout from this issue of immigration and deportation has caused frustration, confusion, and has left so many questions unanswered. Having worked in law enforcement for nearly three decades, I have watched and waited as the federal government has changed, amended, re-declared, re-instituted, and completely eliminated legislation related to the deportation of criminal illegal aliens. There has been absolutely no consistency, and I speak from a place of experience.
You may remember the recent road rage incident that occurred in January, in which a 24-year-old illegal alien got into a dispute with another driver in the intersection of River Road and Tamiami Trail in North Port. Once both of the vehicles were stopped, the 24-year-old exited his car and began beating the other driver in a fit of rage. The driver, while being beaten, had no choice but to shoot in self-defense.
The 24-year-old is an El Salvadorian named Carlos Echeverria-Pena. He was first arrested in 2013 by border patrol agents in Brownsville, Texas, where he was found entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico. ICE agents took custody of Echeverria-Pena and decided not to deport him back to Mexico. Instead, they moved him to Baltimore, Md., where he claimed to have family and was given amnesty. Echeverria-Pena would continue his criminal behavior and be arrested twice more, including one time for assault.
Following Echeverria-Pena’s arrest in Sarasota County, we learned from ICE officials that he wouldn’t qualify for deportation because of “prosecutorial discretion.” They told us that his status, however, would be reviewed during an immigration hearing scheduled for 2019. The broad use of the term prosecutorial discretion is troubling at best, and as I understand it, allows the government, rather than our own communities, to determine which illegal aliens are prioritized for deportation. In its simplest form, prosecutorial discretion is allowing ICE to make up the rules as they go. But this isn’t the first time federal guidelines have been as clear as mud.
It was 2005 when we first met 22-year-old Mexico native Ramiro Villanueva, who migrated to the U.S. to work as a cook, salesman and construction worker. Other than a few traffic tickets for not having a valid driver’s license, Villanueva lived a quiet life in Sarasota County. In 2008, while driving home from work, he was arrested for not having valid identification. Upon entering our jail, he was picked up by ICE a short 72 hours later and deported back to Mexico.
Any reasonable person would agree that the actions of these two men are not comparable and out of the two, greater attention should have certainly been given to the actions of Mr. Echeverria-Pena. This is just one example of failure at the federal level to provide clear and consistent policy, which only sends mixed messages and makes it difficult for local law enforcement to set or meet expectations.
As a law enforcement official who, like many others, takes guidance from the federal government, I am asking for clarity; it’s as simple as that. Define who will qualify for deportation, what laws will be used to detain these individuals within our jails, and who will be the federal agency responsible for ensuring that these laws are enforced consistently throughout the country. I can’t help but be concerned while the federal government makes us play this waiting game regarding who should stay and who should go.
As a fiscally conservative administrator and taxpayer, I have serious concerns. Will the federal government be asking local officials to round up some or all illegal aliens for ICE? If it is just some, then who? If they are arrested and transferred, will the continued practice by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review continue to utilize prosecutorial discretion as a means to refuse deportation? Will otherwise law-abiding people working in our local businesses be deported? And finally, how much will this all cost us at a local level?
Politics cannot continue to rule this issue, because the only way to reform is through collaboration. If the legislators continue to use this as a political talking point, we will all lose. Lawmakers should be asking what the American people want and focusing on our shared values. It won’t be a simple task, but the time is now to get past our differences and do what’s right for every community in America
Sheriff Tom Knight is the Sarasota County Sheriff. The community affairs director can be reached at 941-861-4927.