To Santa Rosa County Sheriff Wendell Hall, the issue is simple: Uphold the law.
In recent weeks, Hall’s department has been cracking down on undocumented workers, checking businesses to determine if employees are using fraudulent documentation, such as stolen Social Security numbers.
So far, the so-called Area Improvement Management team has checked 22 businesses and arrested 27 people—all of them Hispanic.
“I hope we don’t have to put any more in jail,” Hall said. “Hopefully, they’re going to realize they’re going to have to do it the right way or they’re going to have to move out of Santa Rosa County.”
The raids have created a firestorm, with opponents accusing the Sheriff’s Office of racism, racial profiling and essentially terrorizing Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The arrests have provoked outrage among some community residents, prompting a small public protest earlier this month at the Santa Rosa County Courthouse and numerous letters to the editor in the News Journal.
“We think arresting just the Hispanics is discrimination,” said O’Brien, who participated in the demonstration. “Is it the jurisdiction of the sheriff to do immigration work? Let Homeland Security take care of it.”
But Hall firmly believes he is serving county residents by arresting people who are breaking the law, no matter their race or ethnicity. He said federal authorities who enforce immigration laws have been unresponsive.
Hall said the flood of undocumented workers began after Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
Northwest Florida law enforcement agencies began discovering people using false documents stolen from U.S. citizens to obtain employment. They included not only people who were in the United States illegally but also U.S. citizens who were trying to avoid arrest on criminal warrants, Hall said.
Hall acknowledged that the arrests are further burdening the already overcrowded county jail. The jail has an official capacity of 500, but housed 569 inmates Friday.
The 27 workers arrested so far are charged with using false documents—Social Security numbers—to obtain employment, a third-degree felony. They remain in the Santa Rosa County Jail on holds from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The Public Defender’s Office is to represent all the suspects, scheduled for arraignment on March 5.
If Immigration and Customs Enforcement decides to intervene, the undocumented workers could all face deportation.
Tip line for complaints
The Sheriff’s Office has a tip line—983-1198—for citizens to report suspected undocumented workers.
There was a time, Smith pointed out [Chief Deputy Larry Smith of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office], that citizens of Northwest Florida were happy to see Hispanics, regardless of their status.
“After (hurricanes) Ivan and Dennis, we were quite proud to have the Hispanic population come to this county. There were houses to be rebuilt and roofs to be fixed,” he said. “We were glad to see them.”
Undocumented workers may continue to be arrested in Santa Rosa County, regardless of whether Hall is re-elected this fall.
Shane King, who owns a landscaping business in Milton, said Hall is simply doing his job.
“When we elect someone sheriff, if they don’t do their job, we’re going to be upset with them,” King said. “The sheriff’s duty is to arrest or detain all law violators, period.”