Florida authorities frustrated in request for records

Monday, December 10, 2001

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida investigators are frustrated by their inability to obtain federal immigration records of foreigners who remain in the country with expired visas, information officials believe could help stop terrorists.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a list of people whose nonimmigrant visa has expired as well as people who obtained a visa and listed Florida as their destination.

The INS has held up the request while determining how the state plans to use the information. INS officials said local authorities do not have authority to detain someone just because they are in the country illegally.

FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore said police need the information "to be part of the solution" in fighting terrorism.

"The complexity of the task at hand is not lost on me, but we put people on the moon and go get them routinely and bring them back home. I think we can figure out a way to do this," Moore said.

Florida officials are particularly interested in the information because at least 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks had links to the state.

Three were in the United States on expired visas, including Satam Al Suqami, who had a Florida driver's license. He was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower.

The state wants the immigration records so police officers will know if people they stop or arrest are in the country illegally, Moore said.

'Frustrating' delay

The state's request has been pending for about two months.

"It's frustrating," Moore said. "It's almost an attitude in the culture."

The INS is trying to determine if it can release the information, said Russ Bergeron, an agency spokesman in Washington.

"Before we can respond we have to look at the privacy implications of the requests. We have to look at the legal restrictions placed on data," he said. "And we also have to look at the jurisdictional issues ... Under federal law, the only people who can enforce federal immigration law are immigration officers."

Moore wants local officers to be trained by the INS so they can be deputized to enforce immigration laws.

No deputizing

James Goldman, assistant district director for investigations in the INS, said there are plans to assign an INS agent to work with FDLE, but he was cool to the idea of deputizing local officers.

"Certainly we need help in terms of cooperation," Goldman said. "We're not going to be deputizing 40,000 local law enforcement officers."

The INS is giving police information on 314,000 aliens who were ordered deported but who have not left the country.

That's a good start, Florida officials said, but not enough.

"If they get stopped they need to have the fear of God in them, that by God, these officers have a lot more information than they did before Sept. 11 and the days of moving around freely are over,"' said Marion County Sheriff Ed Dean.

Some immigrant advocates say the state is going too far in its request.

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