President Donald Trump’s crackdown on communities offering “sanctuary” from immigration enforcement faces its first big test Friday when the Miami-Dade County Commission convenes to decide whether local jails should continue holding inmates sought by the feds for deportation.
After weeks of protests and demonstrations, the 13-member commission wades into a legislative battlefield over Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s Trump-friendly detention policy, which must receive board approval to stand. At the rare special meeting, set to begin at 10 a.m., competing resolutions call for backing Gimenez’s authority, reversing him, and condemning Trump’s original threat of the loss of federal funds as an unconstitutional assault on local government.
Combined, the agenda offers a local venue for the national debate — and a chance for a heavily blue county largely populated by immigrants to weigh the consequences of cooperating with the Trump administration.
“Obviously, this is something that the country is wrangling with,” said commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Republican who backs Gimenez’s detention policy. “It’s serious stuff for people. We have to treat it that way. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for the political grandstanding.”
At stake is Miami-Dade’s identity as one of America’s most prominent immigrant capitals. Looming over the vote is Trump’s threat to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars, which could squash the county’s hopes for an expanded rail system.
Reversing longstanding county policy, Gimenez on Jan. 26 ordered jails to start honoring detention requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That was just a day after the White House promised a loss of federal funds to “sanctuary” communities. Trump praised the county’s move as “Strong!” — while critics lambasted Gimenez for being the first big-city mayor to cave to the new president.
Obviously, this is something that the country is wrangling with. It’s serious stuff for people. We have to treat it that way.
Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo
Friday’s showdown vote will pit Gimenez, a Republican who said he voted for Hillary Clinton in November, against Democrats who make up a solid majority of Miami-Dade voters but hold just six of the 13 commission seats.
Jean Monestime, the commission’s first Haitian-American and a top local Clinton surrogate, proposed legislation reestablishing the county’s 2013 policy restricting detention requests. His resolution says the commission should “encourage trust between local law enforcement and the immigrant community of Miami-Dade County.”
Commisioner Daniella Levine Cava, another Clinton surrogate, proposed legislation that would go even further, banning all detention requests if ICE doesn’t first obtain a warrant for the person — rules already in place in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“There needs to be some due process,” Levine Cava said.
Befitting Miami-Dade’s tangled politics, not all Democrats on the commission intend to defy the mayor. Commissioner Sally Heyman, a sponsor of the 2013 detention policy, has served as the mayor’s top defender on detentions. Heyman proposed legislation giving Gimenez full authority to decide which detention requests to accept.
To make matters more complicated, Gimenez himself immigrated from Cuba as a child. Seven of 13 commissioners are also Cuban Americans, representative of a county where a majority of residents were born outside the U.S.
Until last month, when then-President Barack Obama repealed an immigration policy known as wet-foot, dry-foot, Cubans were protected under a special status that essentially ensured they would never be in the country illegally, a privilege afforded no other foreign nationals that created friction among immigrants and resulted in Cubans never being affected by the county’s sanctuary stance.
There needs to be some due process.
Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava
The commission voted unanimously in 2013 to stop honoring the ICE detention requests unless the person sought had a felony conviction or was facing serious criminal charges. Even then, Miami-Dade demanded federal reimbursement up front for the extra jail costs, which the feds never paid.
Gimenez’s one-paragraph directive to the county’s Corrections Department reversed that, ordering jailers to honor “all” detention requests, citing Trump’s order.
That Gimenez acted so quickly on Trump’s executive order while other mayors were publicly resisting the president drew national attention, including from Trump himself, who praised the mayor on Twitter. Last week, Press Secretary Sean Spicer also name-dropped Miami-Dade from the White House briefing room.
Whether Miami-Dade would have even been affected by Trump’s order remains unclear. The American Civil Liberties Union has argued the county was safe because it has never stopped notifying federal law enforcement of inmates’ identities.
On Thursday evening, County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams issued an opinion largely backing Gimenez, saying Miami-Dade was free to honor ICE detainers and that the White House could penalize the county by holding back some federal funds.
“With respect to discretionary grants, the executive branch and, more specifically, the departments administering such funding wield considerable sway over their allocation,” she wrote.
The Miami-Dade Democratic Party, labor-union members and other liberal activists have lobbied commissioners for weeks to oppose the mayor. It’s possible that not all 13 commissioners will make Friday’s special meeting, which would shrink the required majority to pass any resolution. Seven commissioners are required for the meeting to be held.
The mayor and his aides initially minimized the new policy’s impact, pointing to fewer than 200 detainer requests received in 2016. But within a week, ICE had sent over 27 requests, putting the county on pace to top 1,000 by the end of 2017.
In a sign that the county wasn’t expecting such swift backlash, hours after his directive made the news, Gimenez was in Orlando on vacation with his grandchildren. His son, lawyer Carlos J. Gimenez, a past lobbyist for the Trump Organization in South Florida, recently opened a lobbying firm to represent clients before the Trump administration.
The detainer controversy brought rebukes from elected officials in Miami and Miami Beach, and prompted a string of demonstrations at County Hall, including a hunger strike this week and a corps of children of undocumented immigrants delivering Valentine’s Day cards to the mayor’s office urging Gimenez to have a “change of heart.”
When opponents tried to address the issue at the commission’s regular meeting Feb. 7, Bovo cut them off — and expelled some of them from the chambers — for raising the topic.
“You will have your opportunity,” Bovo said, “at a future meeting.”