One after another, the people who crammed the Miami-Dade County Commission chambers Friday delivered an extended, impassioned and often eloquent defense of immigration, imploring their elected leaders to defend South Florida’s diversity under the presidency of Donald Trump.
More than 150 people signed up to speak, almost all of them against Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to require local jails to detain inmates at the request of federal immigration authorities. Commissioners are scheduled to vote to accept or reject Gimenez’s directive later Friday.
The mayor has cast his action as a purely financial one, intended to avoid a federal funding cut threatened by a Trump executive order banning cities and counties that act as a “sanctuary” for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
But for most speakers — the vast majority of them Hispanic — Gimenez’s move to essentially revoke the county’s sanctuary stance represented an unacceptable rebuke to Miami-Dade’s immigrant identity.
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“I’m heartbroken by this debate,” said Manuel Ernesto Gutierrez, who described himself as a U.S. Navy veteran. “What bothers me — and should bother you — is the fundamental issue of what kind of community do we want to be. Do we want to be a welcoming community?”
In telling their personal stories, speakers harkened back to an era when the county was segregated and discriminated against African-Americans or Jews — or when Latinos were unwelcome — and repeated, like a mantra, that they didn’t want to go back to that time.
“What this community is looking for is just to know that their government has their back,” said Jose Diaz, a former undocumented immigrant and member of the county’s Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board.
“This is Miami,” said Rafael Velasquez of Miami Beach. “This is a county where they’re proud to speak Spanish.”
He turned to Gimenez and waved his fist.
“We’re all immigrants. We’re all in this together. Never forget your roots. Never forget where you came from. Because this is what holds us together as one nation.”
At one point, Luimar Garza — clad in a white baseball cap and what looked like a black burqa but she described merely as a “cloth” — used her minute behind the microphone to sing a well-received rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
The most emotional moment came when Nora Sandigo, a well-known activist who helps children whose parents have been deported, came to the microphone with four young children who held her by the hand.
“With respect, I beg of you to not give in hardworking, law-abiding people to ICE or Homeland Security,” Sandigo said. The crowd burst into cheers and a standing ovation, in defiance of rules against outbursts inside the chambers. Then, each of the children, ages 7 to 10, spoke. Struggling with the pronunciation of one of her words, 9-year-old Ashley asked Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Pérez for help.
“De-POR-ted,” she recited.
Nearly 20 TV crews lined the back of the commission chambers to cover the vote, which drew national attention after Miami-Dade became the first jurisdiction in the country to reverse its policy to comply with Trump’s order. Shortly into the meeting, news broke that the Trump administration had drafted a memo to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to detain unauthorized immigrants.
Only a handful of people praised Gimenez for, as Manuel Tamargo put it, “enforcing the law and helping Donald Trump.”
“Illegal immigrants keep taking the jobs,” said John King. “Simple arithmetic: No jobs, no immigrants.”
“I thought this was supposed to be speaking for citizens — not illegal immigrants,” said Chaunce O’Connor of Miami Beach, an American flag draped around his neck.
The much larger opposition comprised attorneys, clergy, teachers, progressive activists and some current and former elected officials — including Miami Commission Vice Chairman Ken Russell, who pledged to back up the county if it reversed course to fight the feds. A slew of lawyers, including from the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called it unconstitutional to comply with ICE detention requests without requiring judicial warrants, as Gimenez has directed jails to do.
Public Defender Carlos Martinez warned that Gimenez’s directive would lead to higher detention costs and more crowding in jails. He revealed his staff is already advising clients not to bond out of jail to avoid being turned over to immigration.
In practice, detaining inmates on behalf of ICE doesn’t affect only the undocumented but also lawful permanent residents and asylum-seekers, Martinez said, citing statistics from before 2014, when Miami-Dade stopped complying with federal detention requests. He also noted that Cubans would now likely be affected too, given the recent change in their immigration privileges.
Gimenez and seven of 13 commissioners are Cuban-American.