Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson: “This is not dealing with routine immigration, this is specifically dealing with criminal aliens."

The Walton and Santa Rosa County jails are joining 15 other counties in Florida in a new partnership with the federal government to detain illegal immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

During a news conference last Wednesday, ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan and representatives from several Florida sheriff's offices said the new protocol will allow jail operators to comply with federal detainer requests that have drawn lawsuits. Essentially, the local agencies will hold immigrants who have been arrested for other crimes and are in the country illegally for ICE.

Officials stressed the policy targets immigrants with criminal records or those who have been arrested. They said the aim is to prevent the release of criminals back into the community, citing cases in which an immigrant facing a removal order was released from custody pending deportation and committed crimes.

“This process will result in fewer criminal aliens released to the street. It’s as simple as that,” Homan said in an ICE press release. “The stronger our partnerships are with local law enforcement, the better we can execute ICE’s public safety mission and protect our communities.”

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said in a telephone interview Monday the issue of holding criminal illegal aliens for ICE was separate from the issues of immigration and deportation.

“This is not dealing with routine immigration, this is specifically dealing with criminal aliens,” Adkinson said. “There is a well-founded concern that this becomes something that it’s not.”

Adkinson said his jail sees three to four ICE detainer requests each month.

He also said the new initiative did not mean deputies would be “driving around and rounding up illegal immigrants to take to jail.” Rather, when a person is arrested and taken to jail, if they’re flagged by ICE as a repeat offender or violent criminal who is also in the country illegally, the jail will have the ability to hold them per ICE’s request until an ICE official can pick them up.

Adkinson said it usually takes ICE no more than 24 hours to retrieve an inmate.

According to the details announced Wednesday, ICE will send jail officials three documents: a detainer request based on a probable cause finding; an arrest warrant; and a booking form to allow the local jail personnel to rebook the inmate on the ICE warrant.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the inmate then becomes a federal detainee — similar to when local jails hold people for the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI or U.S. Marshals Service. Sheriff's Offices will be paid up to $50 to hold the inmate for up to 48 hours.

Adkinson said the detainers were common practice up until about two years ago, when civil lawsuits were filed against several sheriffs because ICE did not have judiciary authority.

“Over the past year and a half there’s been an attempt to work this out, to remove liability form local jurisdictions, which has been accomplished,” he said.

The 17 agreements expand a program known as 287(g), a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows the Department of Homeland Security to train local and state law enforcement to work as federal immigration officers. Within a week of taking office, President Donald Trump ordered that 287(g) and other mechanisms for more local cooperation be used.

In Santa Rosa County, Sheriff Bob Johnson said he supports the new partnership because it “takes the civil responsibility off the Sheriff’s back and puts it on the federal government’s back.”

“I’m not in the business of enforcing immigration,” Johnson said. “I don’t have anything to do with that. With this, I’m helping the U.S. government, which I’m proud to do, but it’s basically their show and we’re assisting them.”

Johnson stressed his agency’s interactions with criminal aliens “are not prolific,” and estimated the jail sees two to three ICE detainer requests per month. He said it was important to remember that his agency is simply a mechanism for ICE and doesn’t make any decisions about who is held there and who is not.

“We don’t get to decide who gets deported or who we hold; that’s decided by ICE,” Johnson said. “They provide the paperwork for us, so we don’t make those calls. They determine if the person is worth deporting and then at that time is when the agreement comes into play.”

Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Nicole Wanger said the County Commission runs the Okaloosa County Jail and could not comment as to why the county was not among the participants.

"Because it’s a pilot program, only 17 agencies were chosen by ICE to participate in the state of Florida," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.