Sarasota County Commission workshop on "impacts of illegal immigration" sparks criticism (2024)

A busy week for the Sarasota County Commission preparing for next year's budget concluded on Friday with a contentious but largely symbolic special meeting about the costs of illegal immigration.

The two-hour special meeting on the “impacts of illegal immigration” in Sarasota County saw around 30 residents and members of advocacy groups speak out against the agenda. It identified few specific local budget impacts and ended ambiguously, without commissioners addressing any costs they intended to address as they formulate the 2024-25 spending plan, now estimated at more than $2 billion.

Commissioners spoke little on the purpose of the meeting, but Commissioner Neil Rainford considered it productive.

"Healthy discussion when we're making policy decisions and budget decisions," said Rainford, who faces former sheriff Tom Knight seeking election this year to the seat to which Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him in 2023.

The meeting capped a week of budget hearings where county departments presented their projected costs for the 2025 fiscal year to the commission, as the board moves toward setting a maximum property tax rate by August and adopting a final plan for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

The Manatee County Commission held a similar meeting in April, where Manatee Memorial Hospital reported that it spent more than $12 million on care for undocumented immigrants.

More:Manatee officials argue over illegal immigration's effects on local hospitals, governments

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, HCA Florida Sarasota Doctors Hospital, HCA Florida Englewood Hospital and the Sarasota County School Board were invited to present findings on the financial impacts of those living in the U.S. without legal permission at the special meeting. Only the sheriff and the state attorney attended.

Immigration latest cultural issue Sarasota County Commission takes up

The immigration issue is the latest example of the commission seeking to assert itself on conservative issues, including disassociating itself from United Way Suncoast and a 211 information system over the potential that clients would be referred to Planned Parenthood; adoption of a symbolic medical freedom "sanctuary" resolution, cutting ties to library organizations and cutting spending on social services.

A protest outside the Sarasota County Administration Building preceded the meeting, where demonstrators rallied against the agenda and said the meeting unfairly pinned excess county costs on immigrants living in the country illegally. About 30 protesters held neon green and yellow signs reading “stop the hate” and “we stand with immigrants” and chanted outside the building before filing into the commission chamber.

Sarasota County Commission workshop on "impacts of illegal immigration" sparks criticism (1)

Sarah Parker, the executive director of advocacy group Voices of Florida and a Sarasota County resident, said the commission should address local needs for affordable housing and liveable wages before looking to undocumented immigrants as reasons for undue county costs.Parker was one of around 20 people who spoke during an hour of public comment, most of whom were in opposition to the meeting.

“I’m disheartened and respectfully pissed off that any of us have to be here,” Parker said. “This isn’t fiscally conservative; this is wasting money.”

Commissioner Joe Neunder, however, called the meeting a necessary component of the budget review process. He cited his Hispanic heritage — addressing the crowd in Spanish — and insisted he and the commission weren’t discriminating against immigrants.

“Fiscal impact,” Neunder said. “Money, nothing personal.”

Local officials focused mainly on the costs of illegal immigration within the criminal justice system, relaying statistics on criminal activity from those who immigrated illegally in Sarasota County and across the country. Sheriff Kurt Hoffman said his findings were limited to undocumented immigrants within the local criminal justice system and not those living in the county overall.

“When I say ‘illegal immigration,’ I’m talking about criminal illegal aliens that have come into my jail,” Hoffman said. “My understanding was the board wanted me to look at, ‘What are the costs here in Sarasota County?’”

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Hoffman told the commission that his office has responded to 36 overdoses this year, with 12 being fatal. He referenced the activity he saw during his recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border as a direct cause of the local overdoses, citing an uptick in drugs brought across the border and a spike in fentanyl overdoses nationwide.

Does Sarasota County have an immigration problem?

Though Sarasota County is about 1,800 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, Hoffman said he believes "every sheriff is a border sheriff" because of the widespread impacts of activity at the border. Rainford agreed.

"We're a border county," Rainford said. "Even though we're not attached to any specific country, those products and fentanyl and so forth are coming to our community."

Financially, Hoffman sourced much of his data from his office’s 287(g) program: A U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement measure that allows the department to delegate some of its authority to local law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Office works under the Warrant Service Officer model, which authorizes ICE to train and deputize select staff members to issue warrants against undocumented immigrants in custody.

The office’s 35 WSO officers have identified 30 undocumented immigrants among this year’s arrests, Hoffman said. These arrests and subsequent reports to ICE have totaled $176,879, he said — compared to $378,089 among 57 arrests last year. Of last year's arrests, 33 were violent crimes.

“Clearly, beyond what I’m showing you here, there’s a financial impact for Sarasota County,” Hoffman said.

Commissioner Mark Smith asked Hoffman whether Sarasota County faces an issue with illegal immigration, with Hoffman responding that it depended on Smith’s definition of a problem. Though Hoffman reported that the WSO program has identified more than 500 undocumented inmates since the institution of the program in 2018, he said the ratio of inmates who are citizens or documented inmates to those undocumented is around 10 to 1.

Hoffman also reiterated that his findings of costs to the community were subject only to undocumented immigrants within the criminal justice system and not the entire community.

“That’s a problem in the sense that the jail is already an overcrowded place,” Hoffman said. “We’re not going to construction sites. I’m not going into restaurants.”

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Fifty-one percent of Americans see illegal immigration as “a very big problem,” according to a recent Pew Research study. GOP candidates have ramped up rhetoric against immigration and President Joe Biden’s border policies as the election approaches.

The commission did not address the impacts of undocumented immigrants in the workforce, and the effects that mass deportations proposed by former President Donald Trump would have on the economy.

State Attorney Brodsky says data lacking on local conditions

David Cantillo, pastor of the Iglesia Tampa Bay Para Cristo, said the commission’s focus on the cost of illegal immigration ignores the positives that immigrants bring to their communities — economically, culturally or otherwise.

“They’re not looking at the benefits of immigrants,” Cantillo said. “It’s a little bit of a biased perspective this morning.”

Non-citizen immigrants make up about 11% of Florida’s workforce, according to KFF, a policy research and polling organization. More than one-third of Florida’s agricultural workforce, about 23% of its construction workers, and about 14% of the state’s service and transportation workers are non-citizen immigrants according to its estimates.

More:Florida Gov. DeSantis signs legislation that makes it harder to file ethics complaints

State Attorney Ed Brodsky also presented his findings on the impact of illegal immigration, though he said his office had difficulty gathering local data. Bronsky said the state courts don't have access to a database regarding the immigration status of those on trial, and they can't issue ICE holds on undocumented immigrants.

Brodsky said he has not seen a significant increase in undocumented immigrants committing crimes in Sarasota County.

“We have not seen a great surge of that in Florida,” Brodsky said, “We’ve been very blessed in that regard here in Sarasota County.”

Tsi Day Smyth, director of operations at voices of Florida, said that the presentations applied more to national trends than local observations.

“I guess it would be informative if we lived in El Paso,” Day Smith said. “There doesn’t seem to be any information about here in Sarasota.”

Christian Casale covers local government for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Contact him atccasale@gannett.comor follow him on Twitter @vanityhack. Contact Herald-Tribune Growth and Development Reporter Heather Bushman at Follow her on Twitter @hmb_1013.

Sarasota County Commission workshop on "impacts of illegal immigration" sparks criticism (2024)


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