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Alachua County Immigration Activists Reflect On Year Ahead Following 2020 Elections

Elections on both the federal and local level began new conversations on immigration this fall.

Local Alachua County immigration activists said President-elect Joe Biden's victory provided a sigh of relief.

The feeling was prompted by Biden’s push to decrease the operations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in combination with his promised 100-day deportation moratorium.

Locally, Clovis Watson Jr. is the unopposed Sheriff-elect. He pledges to police in a community-oriented manner, according to an opinion piece that the Gainesville Sun published. But, unlike many newly elected sheriffs across the country, Watson Jr. has not announced an intention to limit his agency's cooperation with ICE.

In Georgia, Keybo Taylor is the sheriff-elect of Gwinnett County, where he pledged to end a program that allows officers to screen inmates for their immigration status. In nearby Cobb County, Sheriff-Elect Craig Owens promised to end his office's agreement with ICE as well.

Watson Jr. did not respond in recent weeks to WUFT's five phone calls and a text message attempting to share his plan for deputies' interactions with Alachua County’s immigrant population.

Director of Immigration Concern for the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County Liz Ibarrola said she is optimistic concerning the election results, especially on a local level. She said Watson Jr. and his campaign have been cooperative and responsive with local immigration advocacy groups.

However, Ibarrola said that she does remain a bit skeptical because of past, unfulfilled promises by local government officials.

Robin Lewy, the director of programming for the Rural Women’s Health Project, said she is relieved about the election results and the future for undocumented immigrants in Alachua County. Like Ibarrola, she said Watson Jr. has been open to hearing local advocates and their policy suggestions.

“We are pleased that he has expressed concern about respecting community members who are here and are diligent neighbors in our community,” she said.

Lewy said she hopes that his concern will translate into policy, such as training within the sheriff’s office to better prepare officers for interactions with immigrants and refugees.

She also pointed to the Gateway for Growth Grant awarded to Gainesville last week as a sign post for positivity. This $20,000 grant is to be used on a plan to improve local immigrant inclusion and economic opportunities. Other city recipients include Miami-Dade, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

On the federal level, Lewy highlighted two policies that were under threat by the Trump Administration. One is the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It would provide work permits and the opportunity to stay in the United States to some who entered into the country illegally as children if they pass a background check, paid fees and continued their studies. Despite 74% of Americans being in favor of DACA, the Trump administration was keen on terminating the program implemented during the Obama Administration.

The second is Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows individuals to legally live and work in the United States because their home country has suffered either war or a natural disaster. The Trump administration notably attempted to end protection for Salvadorians in 2018. Protections for Salvadorians and Haitians are set to expire on Jan. 4.

“I think we can be hopeful that both DACA and TPS are on the road to a better outcome for individuals who have been here working hard to make this their home,” Lewy said.

Despite the Biden campaign’s promises, activists plan to try to hold him accountable during his time in the White House. Biden was vice president when the Obama administration set record-breaking deportation numbers, numbers that every presidential administration before and after failed to match.

The question of how much local advocacy groups and government officials can help the undocumented immigrant population is one of autonomy, activists say. With conflicting views on every governmental level, local officials and activists are bound by state and federal law.

Gainesville City Commissioner Reina Saco said the mayor and city commissioners have done a lot for the immigrant population in an attempt to create a welcoming community. But their efforts are limited by state legislation and forced cooperation through the jail system.

“This is in our tiny bubble,” she said. “We can’t stop ICE from coming in. We can’t stop the jail from doing what it does. In Tallahassee and D.C., we have two men who care very little for immigrants, so it’s a balancing act of how much can we do at the local level to protect our neighbors.”

Recent changes made to Gainesville Police Department policy involving ICE were implemented following a February city commission meeting. The department now can only assist in ICE operations when officers have been assigned to a task force or investigation that is a criminal investigation, according to the general order. Before the amendments, Gainesville police were permitted to assist ICE on a case-by-case basis. The revisions also put strict limits on circumstances in which officers can ask about immigration status.

Ibarrola highlighted city policies that are sympathetic to the local immigrant community. For example, Gainesville’s housing policy prohibits discrimination on the basis of citizenship status. Both Gainesville and Alachua County support the community I.D. program that grants people who lack access to state-issued identification a form of acceptable identification.


Liz Ibarrola discusses her hopes and expectations for the future of Alachua County's immigrant population.

When it comes to immigration policy in Florida, local politicians and advocacy groups are in a sense steering large boats with small rutters, Lewy agreed.

But state policy can have a large local impact within a short time of implementation.

Despite ICE halting its operations because of coronavirus, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office has given over more people to ICE in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019, according to a log of such notifications attained through a public records request.

The first jump in the number of immigrants turned over to ICE arrives just after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a statewide ban on sanctuary cities. The 2019 bill also requires cooperation from local law enforcement to comply and enforce federal immigration law.

The trend of stricter state policy on undocumented immigrants is moving passed the jail system and into employment.

In June, DeSantis signed legislation requiring all government employers as well as some private employers to check the immigration status of new workers using a system overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

Alachua County activists recognize the challenge ahead but remain optimistic in new policy changes stemming from the local level.

“This is an uphill battle,” said Lewy. “We all are working hard, both with the city and the county, to make this a welcoming community for all and recognizing that people that come here seeking a better life are people that are hardworking and are good humans.”

Christopher is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing