POLK COUNTY, Fla. — It's been a little more than a year since a statewide grand jury began investigating the impacts of illegal immigration in Florida.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was one of the first law enforcement officers who provided testimony to the statewide panel. He recently discussed the rare ongoing probe.
Judd, a popular Florida sheriff known for his blunt quips and no-nonsense approach to crime and criminals, is a staunch conservative in a rural and predominately Republican county.
His county is also where the grand jury is based and has spent the last year hearing testimony from law enforcement and insiders about the role human smugglers and the drug cartel play on illegal immigration in the state, along with federal loopholes and the impacts on migrant children sent here without a parent.
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Judd, who supports Gov. Ron DeSantis' controversial immigration reform policies, was among the first people interviewed as part of the state's investigation.
"I can't talk about my grand jury testimony at all because it's still confidential," he told us recently. "But I can tell you, as a sheriff, the problems that I'm seeing day to day, week to week, year in and year out. And the people who don't believe we have border crisis are just not in touch with reality."
To date, the state's grand jury has issued five reports offering wide-ranging recommendations to curb illegal immigration into the state. This includes taxing migrants who send money back to their homes, along with creating new mandates limiting help for migrant children who arrive in the U.S. without a parent or guardian.
The grand jury, which estimates there are now nearly one million people living in Florida illegally, has also recommended holding employers who hire undocumented workers more accountable and criminalizing people who help transport or house them.
He was asked how he would enforce some of those recommendations without targeting immigrants.
"I would never target someone who is not violating the law. The way you would come across somebody would be if a violation were occurring and you're chasing a criminal and someone's hiding the criminal," Judd said. "But let's make it abundantly clear, we're not the immigration police."
Judd reiterated that immigrants who follow the law "are not on my radar screen."
But John Barry, an immigration attorney with the Orlando Center for Justice, fears Florida has already forced many hard-working migrants to leave.
"There's a great deal of fear, and there's a great deal of uncertainty," Barry said.
The state grand jury, coupled with new state laws cracking down on illegal immigration and DeSantis' infamous migrant flight, are all state-funded actions that Barry believes have less to do with effective policy and more about cementing political ambitions.
"It is not designed or tailored to address unlawful immigration. It doesn't care about that," Barry said about the grand jury. "It is only trying to score political points to satisfy the presidential ambitions of the governor."
Judd was asked if the DeSantis administration's actions give the impression that Florida is targeting all immigrants in the state.
"If you illegally enter a country, any country, you're going to be subject to the laws and the rules and the regulations that occur," Judd said. "If you don't want to worry about that, then don't go into the country illegally."
The grand jury has been extended to April 2024. While the panel has made several recommendations, they still must be presented to and approved by the Legislature before they become active.