A Pinella’s County Elementary School Teacher was found with a Loaded Gun and Knives in School yesterday.

The Tampa Bay Times reported yesterday of Pinella’s county arrest of Starkey Elementary School forth grade teacher Betty Jo Soto, 49.

Ex-Elementary School Teacher, Betty Jo Soto, 49, of Pinella’s County’s Starkey Elementary School. (Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office via Tampa Bay Times]

Soto is facing two counts of misdemeanor conceal weapons charge, after being found with a Glock 9mm pistol and two knives in a backpack. According to WFLA’s interview with Desoto on why she brought weapsons into her classroom, Soto responded by telling them to “Ask Desantis.” Revelations made on her Facebook Page was also reported to include a message indicating that she was conducting a “revolutionary act.”

Soto’s timely arrest arrives on the heels of the passing of the controversial State Bill 3070 on arming teachers, signed by Gov. DeSantis on May 8 and strongly advocated for by Pinellas County Sheriff, Bob Gualtieri.

School district would have to opt into the “Guardian’s Program” in order for teachers to receiving the training. As of this time, both Sarasota and Manatee counties have opted out, despite Manatee school board member, Scott Hopes, advocating for the district’s inclusion into the program.

What we don’t know:

  • Soto’s psychological evaluation, if any.
  • Soto’s Motive

Rep. Vern Buchanan Releases Statement on Russian Election Hacking via Twitter

On Thursday, U.S Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, released a public statement strongly condeming the Russian cyber-hacking of two florida county voter databases after attending a classified briefing via Twitter.

U.S Rep. Vern Buchanan’s public statement in response to attending an FBI briefing on Russian cyberhacking of two Florida county voting systems on Thursday. (Via Twitter)

In the release, Buchanan describes the alarming nature of the cyber security threats posed to state voting systems, stating ‘Vladmir Putin is not our friend’ and called on a bipartisan approach to deal with future election inteference.

Buchanan’s response comes after the revelations of Russian cyber interference from Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this week.

Gov. DeSantis told reporters that he was not ‘allowed to disclose’ information related to the FBI investigation due to signing a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for a private briefing. via Politico.

Buchanan’s response comes after his public statement last month on the Mueller Report, stating that ‘America needs to move on.’ (Via Zac Anderson, Sarasota-Herald-Tribune)

As of this time Thursday, none of the two counties has been identified.

Do you feel Vern Buchanan’s response is adequate? Please comment below.

Hello Again…Again.

So, it’s been a while since I’ve published here. I am derelict of my public duty.

I know it’s this. A great indicator is whenever I change my branding image.

Feelin’ more ‘beachy’. Perhaps a little more casual. Relaxed is probably a better word.

In an effort to be a bit more conversational and above all, consistent, I want to reach out today to say that I’m starting fresh yet again.

I’m hoping I can share more of me with you.

In this reboot, I’m hoping to capture local southwest Florida stories and present them in multimedia features in the upcoming months. Stay tuned.

Most importantly, I want to know what you care about, what stories you have, and what I can help shed some light on. Please reach out to me on social media for tips at @alexmbuono.

Also, I aim to publish much more frequently, hopefully on a daily basis with musings, commentary, and recaps of what’s happening locally and nationally.

To start here’s something truly…Florida. It happened right down the road from me.

Stay tuned and hope to hear from you.

Onward and upward,

-Alex

Manatee County Pilots Controversial ICE Agreement as Deportation Fears Increase

 

On Jan. 17, 2018 in Largo, Florida, a press conference was held by Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies to announce a new inter-governmental law enforcement partnership with ICE called a “basic ordering agreement.”

Bradenton Rallies to Keep Families Together
Photo(s): Alex M Buono

(Bradenton, Florida)“The people that were doing these lawsuits were arguing, ‘Oh no, the state or the local jail doesn’t have jurisdiction to hold them,’” 

explained Adriana Guzman-Rouselle, an immigration attorney who has served Manatee County since 2005, on the liability exposure felt by local law enforcement agencies that inspired ICE’s “basic ordering agreement.” “The way to go around this was, ‘Okay, we’re going to hire those jails as providers of the service,” said Guzman-Rouselle.

According to Tampa Bay Online, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, also a representative of the National Sheriff’s Association, had been working with U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement to develop the contract that was reportedly planned be piloted by 17 Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies.

The “basic ordering agreement” or BOA was described in a press release by ICE on January 17, “an existing procurement tool for acquiring a substantial, but presently unknown quantity of supplies or services.” The housing agreement was designed to afford liability protection for local law enforcement agencies housing “illegal criminal aliens in their jails and prisons.” ICE would then reimburse the service provider or law enforcement agency for the costs up to 48-hours of detention of an individual detainee. These actions would all take place after an individual is released from custody, having been charged with state-level criminal charges.

Also in attendance at the press conference was Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells, who according to public record signed the agreement with ICE on the Jan. 19. Sheriff Wells commented to Hannah Morse of the Bradenton Herald on Jan. 18 regarding the agreement, “We’re just trying to keep our community safe, and when you have a criminal illegal alien who has been committing crimes in our community, they need to be held accountable.”

Media Controversy Surrounding the Agreement

Since the announcement of the joint law enforcement program in January, the agreement has generated media controversy. According to Guzman-Rouselle, the national media has been complicit in conflating the fears of the undocumented community in recent months. “Even if you are undocumented, if you comply with the law, you will be okay,” Guzman-Rouselle explained. “When you start doing things you are not supposed to, you encounter problems.”

According to The Gainesville Sun, Shortly after the press conference on the 17th, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell announced the next day that the County Sheriff’s office would not opt into the pilot program because “they are not in the business of immigration,” according to the Alachua sheriff’s spokesman, Art Forgey. On Jan. 24, The Southern Poverty Law Center sent public records requests to all 17 Florida counties involved with the pilot program, demanding transparency and more information on the federal program. Florida Politics’ Mitch Perry reported in February a number of Tampa Bay area faith-based organizations rejecting the merits of the agreement.

In March, the Tampa Bay times reported of local undocumented immigrants seeking retainer agreements amid fears of detention and deportation by ICE. In April, 88.5 WNMF reported of a “heated debate” between Pinellas Sheriff Gualtieri and immigrant rights activists on the implementation of the agreement as a pretext to detain undocumented individuals that were initially arrested on charges of driving without a license or identification. April also marked the beginning of the controversial “zero-tolerance policy” implemented by the Department of Justice along the southwest border.

The policy created a national fervor that was also felt here in Manatee County over the separation of families in detention facilities that included South Florida’s Homestead federal facility.

Recent History of Immigration Enforcement in Manatee County

“I haven’t seen any changes, you know, just in paper,” Guzman-Rouselle said of her recent legal experiences with the BOA in comparison to other programs like 287g and Secure Communities. According to public record documents available on online via freedom of information act requests from ina287.org, Manatee County has been actively participating in joint partnerships with ICE since signing a “memorandum of agreement” or “MOA” in July 2008.

In Dec. 2006, former Manatee County Sheriff Charles B. Wells, father of current Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells, sent a written request to ICE to participate in the 287g program in order to train corrections officers in response to what Wells claimed was a large population of undocumented aliens who, “end up in our jails for everything from traffic-related crimes to homicide.” Charlie Wells successor, former Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube signed the agreement in Jun. 2008, only to request a withdrawal from the 287g Program in Sept. 2009.

Steube cited changes ICE made to the MOA requiring law enforcement agencies to provide certified interpreters that were, “cost prohibitive under MCSO’s current budget.” The hiatus was brief, as the Sheriff’s Office joined the Secure Communities program in Oct. 2009 until the Obama administration’s sun-setting of the program in November 2014. The Trump administration reactivated the program via executive order in Jan. 2017.  The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is currently not participating in the program.

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Breaking Down the BOA’s implementation in Manatee

According to the Booking Manual procedures provided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E) Detainers and Notifications” was implemented on Mar. 8 2018, defining the department’s role as a “service provider to the DHS ICE pursuant to the BOA and authorized by federal law to hold alien detainees when all requirements for detention are met.”

“The narrow service we provide to ICE is detention for 48 hours after release from custody on local criminal charges, and that is only done when proper documentation is submitted by ICE for detention of a particular subject,” according to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office General Counsel, Eric Werbeck. “ICE then has 48 hours to pick the subject up from our custody. If they don’t arrive within that time period, the subject is released. All of the subjects being detained will have been arrested for state criminal charges,” Werbeck said.

Since the agreement’s implementation in March, the Sheriff’s Office has held 32 individuals as of June, 14, according to a public record. Of the 32 individuals detained for the maximum of 48-hour period, 25 have been transferred to ICE custody. The criminal charges of detainees that were transferred to ICE ranged from battery and domestic violence, DUI, attempted murder and controlled substance. The individuals released from the detention ranged from unanswered court summonses, driving without a license, or probation violations.

Elizabeth M. Nicholson, ICE Community Relations Officer for Central and Northern Florida, stated that the local field office does not have an accounting of individual detainers at the county level, but pointed to 2017 fiscal year removal statistics for Florida. According to the ICE Fiscal Year data for Florida from 2016-2017, there was a 14-percent increase in removals.

Peter Lombardo, a local criminal defense attorney located in Bradenton who has had clients from the undocumented community, believes that the overall majority of undocumented criminal defendants do not get deported or jailed in Manatee County. “We’ll go to court and its usually misdemeanors, and we’ll go in, they’ll plead guilty, they’ll either get a fine or probation or whatever, and they just walk out the courtroom with me,” Lombardo said.

“I definitely believe that what people have to understand, sometimes, it’s not like ICE is looking for them,” Guzman-Rouselle said. Rouselle explained further that she believes that substance abuse in the undocumented community invites attention from authorities. A study titled, “Undocumented Immigration, Drug Problems, and Driving Under the Influence in the United States, 1990-2014” released in August of 2017 by the American Public Health Association concluded that there was “no significant relationship between increased undocumented immigration and DUI deaths.”

The Trump Administration and Interior Immigration Enforcement

In 2015, the New York Times reported from the campaign trail that Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric was scolded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush as “extraordinarily ugly.” In April 2017, The American Bar Journal hosted a legal panel in Miami that emphasized the Trump administration’s focus on criminal immigration enforcement.

Ariel Ruiz Soto, an Associate Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who co-authored a May 2018 MPI report titled, “Revving Up the Deportation Machinery: Enforcement under Trump and the Pushback,” believes that the creation of federal BOA’s by the Department of Homeland Security and ICE are meant to incentivize participation of local law enforcement agencies who are concerned about prohibitive costs and legal blowback.

“Rather than incentivizing new participation in immigration enforcement, BOA’s have facilitated access to local law enforcement agencies which had considered cooperating more closely with ICE but had common concerns regarding the cost and liability of holding an immigrant beyond the time they were charged to serve for their criminal convictions,” Soto said.

“The practices of the current administration, however, can and must also be traced to the crime politics of liberal Democrats that shifted the discourse on unauthorized migration,” writes Patricia Macia-Rojas in a 2018 article featured in the Journal of Migration and Huma Security. Amanda Frost wrote in a Nov. 2017 article in the Iowa Law Review, that the legacy of the Obama administration’s removal or forbearance model of immigration enforcement and lack of congressional response to immigration enforcement, should prompt alternative enforcement strategies in the future.

According to Guzman-Rouselle, an urgent problem facing Manatee’s undocumented community is being able to parse fact from fiction by finding legitimate sources of legal help for friends and family. “Mostly what I have seen is notary fraud, telling people things, ‘Oh no, let’s apply for asylum, let’s apply for this or let’s apply for that’,” Guzman-Rouselle said. “They don’t understand the consequences of doing one of those applications, that eventually, they are going to put you in front of an immigration judge when you didn’t have to be there.”

For more information on the Manatee County Basic Ordering Agreement via the National Sheriff’s Association, click here.

Click here for ACLU’s fact sheet on the Basic Ordering Agreement.

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The Immigrant Youth Project Hopes to Inform Central Florida and Lawmakers

According to Dr. Heide Castaneda, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, and co-founder of The Immigrant Youth Project, recruiting undocumented youth to speak on their experience for the federally funded research project has been a challenge after the DACA recision.

“When people had DACA, they felt certainty with their status, they were more willing to talk about how they felt, what they experienced,” Castaneda explained. “As soon as the DACA recision was announced, people shutdown,” she added.

The project began in Sept. 2017 with the aim of investigating the social and emotional well-being of undocumented young adults living in Central Florida and across the United States. The legal battle to decide the uncertain fate of DACA recipients is still being waged in U.S District Courts. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that DACA protections should remain in place, and the government must continue to accept new applications.

According to Dr. Castaneda, the goal of the project’s research is to inform policymakers and the public on the social implications of undocumented young adults who are living in a transitional status.

“We’ve talked to people who are afraid to enter long-term relationships because they don’t know what’s next for them, and I think that really impacts their ability be full members of society and express themselves as humans,” Castaneda said.

 Castaneda is a co-creator of the project along with University of South Florida Assoc. Prof. of Sociology Dr. Elizabeth Aranda and former USF faculty and now Assoc. Prof. of Sociology at George Washington University, Dr. Elizabeth Vaquera. The three professors met at the University of South Florida in 2007, and all shared a common interest in immigrant families, youth, and incorporation into society. According to Castaneda, The National Science Foundation awarded their project proposal in June of last year and provided the perfect opportunity to combine their research efforts into an interdisciplinary focus on “an urgent issue In their own backyard” in Central Florida. The project has also extended an outreach partnership with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, where the researchers themselves take part in events and clinics held by the coalition.

In Castaneda’s and the researchers’ view of their preliminary findings, participants have shown a variety of responses, ranging from high levels of emotional distress, depression, and suicidality to high levels of political engagement and activism. According to a Jan. 2017 article from the National Institute of Mental Health, child of immigrants born in the U.S. may have a higher risk for mental disorders than their parents. According to the Pew Research from Sept. 2017, two-thirds of DACA recipients are ages 25 or younger.

 President Trump continues to press Democrats on the issue of immigration, where on Monday Trump tweeted out on Monday that he has instructed Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen P.Nielsen to, “not let these large Caravans of people into our Country.”

According to Castaneda, the key for Central Florida to understand the plight of its undocumented immigrant youth is how ingrained they already are in the community.

“The key thing to understand is that what passport you are holding and how valid your visa is, it’s not that it’s not important, but for the everyday experience of living in our communities here in Central Florida, it’s not as important,” Castaneda said. “These are people who have jobs in all sectors of society,” she added.

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As the project heads into the summer, their recruiting push is expecting an increase in participants, with the overall goal of reaching 140 individual experiences for the project’s total.

“More and more people in the US are living in a family where there is at least one undocumented person,” Castaneda said. “Immigration doesn’t just affect the immigrant, it affects their family members and their communities,” she added.

For more information on how to get involved with the Immigrant Youth Project, click here.

Attorney Ahmad Yakzan says SCOTUS Decision on Sessions v. Dimaya is a Small Win

On Tuesday, The U.S Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in the case of Sessions v. Dimaya. The court affirmed U.S code 16b’s definition of “violent felony” is unconstitutionally vague when applied to the removal provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. To Southwest Florida immigration attorney Ahmad Yakzan, the ruling offers potential relief to clients convicted of such crimes and are unable to seek asylum in the U.S.

“In one of the cases that I have right now, the person was from Palestine for example, and Israel would not take him back. So, he’s been on a removal order for about 11 years.” Yakzan said. “The second I read the decision I called him and told him this is huge for you, we need to move to reopen your case,” he added.

The Supreme Court ruling marks another setback for the legislative priorities of the Trump Administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on April 11th that the Department of Justice would suspend the Legal Orientation Program from the Vera Institute, a program designed to educate detained immigrants about their rights, according to the Washington Post.

According to Yakzan, it is a critical window for undocumented immigrants with aggravated felony charges who are not currently in removal proceedings in order to petition for a Green Card.

“I don’t know what congress is going to do, this is a big deal. They might actually come back and say well, ‘Here is another definition that might work,’ and that might actually bar some undocumented immigrants from applying for the benefits,” Yakzan said. “Would it help? Absolutely. Would it hurt? We really don’t know, but we’re taking it as a win as immigration litigators,” Yakzan added.

Yakzan has served as an immigration litigator in the St. Petersburg-Tampa area for nine years, receiving his Master of Laws degree in International Law and Legal Studies at Stetson University College of Law. According to his American Dream Law Office bio, Yakzan has co-authored several publications on Immigration law for the St. Petersburg Bar Association.  Yakzan, himself an immigrant from Beirut, Lebanon, is the owner of his own law firm, American Dream Law Office, where he manages two offices in downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa. His firm offers a variety of immigration legal services, from removal defense to asylum applications.

In reaction to Tuesday’s decision, White House officials and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director, Thomas Homan, responded in the Washington Post, calling on Congress to act on close loopholes on removals while also stating that drug trafficking would no longer be considered an aggravated felony in the state of Florida.

According to Syracuse University Trac Data, the state of Florida ranks as the 3rd highest number of removal orders to date in the U.S.

“Do I see the administration changing its stance before 2020, absolutely not,” Yakzan said. “We’re in for the long haul, and it’s going to be an interesting journey,” he added.

For more on Attorney Ahmad’s legal perspective on the SCOTUS decision, click here.

 

A Local Manatee Dreamer Looks Forward to a Future in Politics Despite the Uncertain Future of DACA

Oscar J. Portillo-Meza is a local DACA recipient who has dreams of becoming a U.S Secretary of State one day, that is all contingent of course, if he can stay in the country he has called home for the last ten years.

A resident of Bradenton and Bayshore High School Senior while splitting time taking courses at the University of South Florida, Portillo-Meza is an ambitious Florida teenager who immigrant from Honduras with his parents at the age of 7. Portillo-Meza has volunteered with several local organizations such as Unidos Now, The Boxser Diversity Initiative, and the Florida Democratic Party. In recognition for his philanthropic efforts, he was recently awarded the Young Spirit Award by the Manatee Community Foundation as reported in the Bradenton Herald last Tuesday.

In deciding to reveal his undocumented status and become a public advocate for the cause, Portillo Meza wants to prove that the young DACA recipients in America stand for positive change in their local communities. I’m not afraid of anything, I think I could do wonderful things anywhere,” said Portillo-Meza. “It doesn’t matter if there’s some crazy people who wants to like say yeah ‘ I’m gonna call ICE’, yeah okay,” he added.

According to Pew research polls from September 2017, most DACA recipients are 25 years old and younger.

James A. McBain, a local Bradenton Immigration Attorney of Immigration Law Services of Bradenton, says Dreamers like Portillo-Meza who can prove good moral character have greater pressure to adhere to the law and less legal recourse than average American citizens if they slip up.

“You don’t have to prove it, neither do I,” McBain said. “A small crime isn’t going to affect you guys, but they do affect those kids,” he added.

 Domain age checker

For more information on Portillo-Meza, click here.

In Tampa, International Women’s Day is a Celebration of Immigrant Voices

In Tampa on Thursday, International Women’s Day was ushered in at Ybor City’s Centennial Park with the International Women’s Day: Stand with Immigrant Women event held by the Hillsborough Community Protection Coalition. Nearly 100 attendees gathered to celebrate local immigrant women’s voices who feel an urgency to express their stories as immigrant women that feel under siege in the Trump presidency, as immigration enforcement partnerships with ICE in Hillsborough and sixteen other counties have been recently initiated, according to the Bradenton Herald.

“My family was undocumented for some years, so we understand the plight of undocumented people,” said Pamela Gomez, an event organizer. “Which has lead into a lot of the work I do with the community in fighting for immigrant rights,” she added.

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Tampa Immigration Attorney Ahmad Yakzan explains the change in litigation from the Obama to Trump Era, (below).

 

Manatee’s Coleman is a Professor, Political Scientist, and First Time Candidate

Liv Coleman hopes that Manatee County will send her to Tallahassee to unseat Republican incumbent Joe Gruters  as a first time Democratic Candidate for the District 73 seat in the Florida State House of Representatives. Coleman, 38, received a strong introduction to voters from Manatee County Democratic Party Sheryl Wilson at a local workshop last month and has been a resident of Bradenton since 2015. Coleman believes that in addition to her being a political scientist and educator, listening is the key strength for her as a candidate.

“I think we’ve seen politicians recently who don’t necessarily hold town halls, who may or may not be in good contact with their constituents,” Coleman said. “I hope to reach out to as many people as possible,” she added.

Liv Coleman

For more information on Liv Coleman’s candidacy, click here.

At Drago’s, Fernando Drago’s Passion is Serving his Community

Fernando Drago has led many different professional lives.

He’s worked as a carpenter, construction worker, and an oyster shucker.

For the last three years, Drago’s latest incarnation has been the Chef and Owner of Drago’s Cuban Café in Downtown Bradenton, where the restaurant was reviewed in 2017 by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.  The restaurant is known for its unique take on the Cuban sandwich amongst other dishes, that combine Drago’s diverse Italian and Cuban heritage.

For Drago, his love of cooking started with his family when he was just four years old watching his father, also a chef, cook in various restaurants in the New York Metropolitan area.

“My parents were dancing and cooking, but cooking was the big thing,” Drago said.

Six months after Drago and his wife, Ronda, opened the doors to Drago’s in Downtown Bradenton in Jan. 2014, Drago was diagnosed with bladder cancer. In not wanting to alarm his patrons or family, the couple decided to keep his diagnosis secret.
“I just never talked about it for the first year,” Ronda explained. “And then the second year when we had another scare, I had to at that point. I needed my family and my friends at that time,” she added.

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Drago thrives on interacting with his customers. (Photo: Alexander Michael Buono)

According to the American Cancer Society as of 2018, incident rates have decreased while mortality rates have stabilized. The National Cancer Institute states that the current 5-year survival rate for patients is 77 percent, according to studies conducted from 2007-2013.

Drago continued to work throughout his diagnosis, and claims that in battling his cancer, the fight was another formative experience in his professional life.

“I’m proud to have made it through all that, proving to myself that I’m blessed,” Drago said. “It’s toughened me up, build character. That’s all it is,” he added.

For more information on Drago’s, click here.