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Deputies go to building sites, grab workers who run away
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published June 28, 2007
PANAMA CITY BEACH - The Bay County Sheriff's Office has developed a remarkably effective - and controversial - way of catching undocumented workers: Deputies in patrol cars pull up to a construction site in force, and watch and see who runs.
Those who take off are chased down and arrested on charges such as trespassing, for cutting through someone else's property; or loitering, for hiding out in someone's yard; or reckless driving, for speeding off in a car.
Immigration authorities are then given the names of those believed to be in this country illegally.
"It's not wrong for them to run, but it's not wrong for us to chase them, either, " said Sheriff Frank McKeithen, who created his "illegal alien task force" in April to target construction sites in this Panhandle county.
Immigrant advocates say the technique is repugnant, and the American Civil Liberties Union says its constitutionality is questionable.
Undocumented workers are leaving town. And builders are worried the crackdown will deprive them of the labor they need to take part in a building boom in which Panama City's Beach cheap spring break motels are being torn down and replaced with high-rise condos.
The sheriff said the raids are justified under a long-standing Florida law prohibiting employers from knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants.
His department has conducted dozens of these raids over the past three months, sometimes using five or six patrol cars, and has reported more than 500 people to immigration officials since November.
The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund is investigating the arrests because "the intimidation factor is of great concern, " said Elise Shore, the regional counsel for the organization.
Benjamin Stevenson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, said he finds the tactic troubling.
"Why are they sending out six or seven agents to investigate a paper crime, and are they causing them to run in the first place through intimidation?" he asked.
McKeithen has asked Attorney General Bill McCollum for a legal opinion on his tactics. A spokeswoman for McCollum said the office is researching the request.
The sheriff said that more recently, his officers have been making fewer arrests of workers who flee, and are concentrating more on asking employers for the paperwork on their employees. Sheriff's deputies then arrest workers whose documents are found to be fraudulent.
Developer Louis Breland is finishing the first phase of a $750-million beach condo project.
"Subcontractors could not function without immigrant laborers for painting, rebar and steel work. They are the best workers, " he said. "Without them, the cost of construction would be 10 times as much and nothing would get built."