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Activists are pushing for Pinellas to be declared a sanctuary county

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Despite a published report listing it as a sanctuary county, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri adamantly rejects classifying Pinellas  with such a designation. But a group of activists who held a news conference in St. Petersburg on Tuesday want the County Commission to call themselves a ‘welcoming’ county.

They met in front of City Hall to call on the members of the City Council to support a resolution, calling on the Pinellas County Commission to give themselves that title. Although there is no formal definition of a sanctuary city or county, it’s generally recognized as a community that has advised its law enforcement officers not to cooperate with the federal government when it comes to detaining undocumented immigrants unless they have committed a crime other than legally entering the country.

A report issued out on Tuesday by the liberal Center for American Progress said that contrary to President Trump’s recent claims, low-income immigrants access fewer public benefits than U.S.-born individuals. Activist Kofi Hunt cited that report in making his case for Pinellas to become a sanctuary county.

“When you have policies that basically treat undocumented people who live in the community as residents, you don’t hunt them down, and they feel comfortable integrating into society, that it’s better for the community and that’s one reason we’re saying this,” Hunt said.

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman recently got himself into a slight kerfuffle with Gualtieri after making a statement earlier this month where he declared that “While our county sheriff’s office is ultimately responsible for notifying the federal government about individuals who are here illegally, I have no hesitation in declaring St. Petersburg a sanctuary from harmful federal immigration laws.”

The editorial page of the hometown Tampa Bay Times also criticized Kriseman for the statement, writing that “Kriseman’s statement was a well-intended message of inclusion during a time of uncertainty and division over immigrants’ place in American society. It’s a shame he muddied it with poorly chosen words.”

Hunt applauds Kriseman’s intentions, saying it reflects the character of St. Petersburg and the values of the people who live in the city.

Marc Rodrigues is with the West Central Florida Labor Council. He says that people who risk everything to make it to this country so that they could feed their families or find better opportunities “are not our enemy.”

“As the Florida labor movement we stand in opposition to Trump’s recent executive orders concerning immigration and we are also troubled by the fact that lawmakers in Tallahassee – with all the problems in this state that need to be addressed, from our embarrassingly low wages to our public school system and infrastructure – are wasting precious time and resources on trying to pass laws that would actually punish local municipalities that decide to take a “welcoming” or “sanctuary” stance toward immigrants and other vulnerable communities,” Rodrigues says in an email. “We stand with our community partners here in Pinellas and Hillsborough and elsewhere who are trying to pass such statutes and call on our local leaders to heed these efforts.”

Hassan Shibley, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida, said President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, as well as comments made on Sunday by senior White House adviser Stephen Miller that the President’s power on national security and how it will “not be questioned” are very concerning.

“The President thinks he has authority that is not granted by the constitution,” said Shibley. “The president holds these beliefs and it is up  to the states and the counties to protect their residents against a President who clearly doesn’t respect the constitution.”

Given Gualtieri’s previously very public stance against being considered a sanctuary county, Shibley admits it won’t be easy to persuade the County Commission to override their own sheriff. But he says they must.

“It’s a challenge, but I think more people are recognizing  that we need to unite to build communities where all of our residents feel safe, and I think the more we see aggressive policies coming out of the White House that show a total disrespect for the rule of law, the Constitution, and the limits on authority, that the more support we’ll see at the local level to take action that make people feel welcome and feel safe,” he says.

” I think we live in a time of a fast growing civil rights movement and I think my hope is that voices that stand in the way of that will  further be  marginalized as time goes on,” Shibley added.

“I’m sure the Sheriff will have his position, but from the energy that you’re seeing after the election, a lot of it is in tune with solidarity with immigrants,” says Hunt. “It will take some political ppressure, but that’s why I myself and others work as activists and organizers on the grass roots level,to let local residents about the issues at hand and how we can address them, and once  we get the people active and engaged in the topic, will see which way the political winds blow.”

The Center for Immigration Studies has also listed Hillsborough as a sanctuary county, a charge that Sheriff David Gee denies. Two weeks ago, a large group of citizens addressed the Hillsborough County Diversity Advisory Council to recommend to the County Commission that Hillsborough become a sanctuary county. BOCC Chair Stacy White says he has no interest in doing so.

Last week in Tallahassee, Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean and Yalaha Republican Larry Metz introduced companion bills ( SB 786 and HB 697)  that would ban “sanctuary polices” in Florida and create fines and penalties for state agencies, local governments, or law enforcement agencies that use those policies and don’t cooperate with the federal government.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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