Miami-Dade County — faced with threats by President Donald Trump to potentially cut off federal funding — violated the U.S. Constitution when it agreed to jail people slated for deportation, a judge ruled on Friday.
The judge’s decision was a rebuke of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s much-criticized decision to allow county jails to hold undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation by federal agents, a measure that has sparked protests and anger by many immigration advocates in South Florida.
Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch found that the policy violated the Tenth Amendment, which limits the reach of the federal government over states.
“Of course we must protect our country from the problems associated with unregulated immigration,” he wrote. “We must protect our country from a great many things; but from nothing so much as from the loss of our historic rights and liberties.”
He also wrote: “States cannot cede their reserved powers to the federal government — no, not even if they wish to do so.”
The immediate practical effect of the decision is likely minimal — James Lacroix, who appealed because he was kept in jail after his sentence was up, has already been moved to federal custody, and other judges are not bound by Hirsch’s ruling. The judge also did not explicitly order Miami-Dade jailers to stop honoring requests by the federal government to hold people otherwise eligible for release if they are marked for deportation, or suspected of violating immigration laws.
But the ruling sets up a legal battle in front of a Miami-Dade’s state appeals court, one bound to be watched nationwide as Trump continues to make deportation and immigration control a centerpiece of his early administration.
The county immediately filed a notice of appeal with the Third District Court of Appeal. If the court issues a “stay” in the case until it is resolved, the county can continue holding inmates wanted by immigration authorities. “It is Miami-Dade County’s position that immigration is a federal issue which should be handled in federal court,” according to a mayor’s spokesman.
Critics of the county’s policy immediately hailed Hirsch’s decision.
Juan Cuba, chairman of Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party, said the ruling should send a signal to the County Commission, which approved the policy in a 9-3 vote on Feb. 17. “The mayor and the Gimenez Nine can ignore the community but they can’t ignore the constitution and the courts,” he said.
Miami-Dade should have never surrendered to Trump’s “anti-immigrant agenda,” said Naomi Tsu, deputy director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Keeping Mr. Lacroix in jail after he served his sentence is an outrageous violation of our legal rules,” she said in a statement. “We are pleased with Judge Milton Hirsch’s ruling and it is reassuring to see that he upheld the rule of law. Miami-Dade County should reestablish their policy that drew clear boundaries between police and deportation forces.”
Under federal policy, immigration agents had up to 48 hours to pick up someone being held in a county jail. But since 2013, Miami-Dade County had stopped honoring most requests by federal authorities to hold undocumented or deportable jail inmates after their sentences were up or their cases closed — though there were exceptions for serious crimes.
For the county, the concern was generally that feds were not reimbursing the additional detention costs.
But when Trump took office in January, he threatened to cut federal funding from so-called “sanctuary” cities that did not cooperate with federal immigration authorities; Miami-Dade’s political leaders had long resisted that label.
“Miami is not, and has never been, a sanctuary city,” Hirsch wrote. “But America is, and has always been, a sanctuary country.”
Gimenez, citing concerns about losing millions in federal money, ordered the county jail system to honor all requests by immigration authorities, a decision that contrasted with some big city mayors who vowed to resist Trump’s efforts.
Trump’s much-publicized pressure on communities across the country was key in Hirsch’s ruling. The county, in 2017, is counting on receiving some $355 million in federal funds — money that subsidizes elderly services, beds for the homeless, police officers and other government expenses.
“Coercion achieved by financial starvation is no less effective than coercion achieved at sword’s point,” Hirsch wrote.
The decision was not unexpected coming from a state court judge who has never shied from tackling thorny legal questions. Most recently, he became the first Florida trial-court judge to rule that juries need to be unanimous in meting out the death penalty, a decision later echoed by the state’s high court.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security last month unveiled broad new policies aimed at finding, arresting and deporting illegal immigrants. The government plans to build new detention centers, speed up deportations and enlist local law enforcement to help, something Miami-Dade County opposes.
The county’s controversial policy was challenged by Lacroix, a Haitian national who had been living legally in Miami under what is known as “temporary protected status,” which was afforded to the island nation in 2010 after a series of natural disasters. But Lacroix, at some point, was ordered deported after he continued to rack up felony arrests for driving without a valid license.
Lacroix was jailed in late January, one day after Gimenez changed his stance on the detentions. Federal authorities filed an official request asking that Lacroix be held for them if his case were to conclude.
On Tuesday, Lacroix pleaded guilty to two felony cases of driving with a suspended license. His sentence: credit for the several weeks he spent in jail. But Lacroix was not released, spurring his lawyers to ask Hirsch to review the legality of the county’s new detention policy. Federal agents went to the jail on Wednesday to pick up Lacroix, who spent 28 hours in Miami-Dade jail custody after his state sentence was officially up.
“What Judge Hirsch is saying is that they can make all the requests they want, we don’t keep people in jail when their case is closed and there is no reason to hold them while the government waits 24, 48, 72 hours to get their act together,” said Lacroix’s attorney, Philip Reizenstein.
Friday’s decision came too late for Lacroix, who will have to challenge deportation in the federal system, if he hasn’t already been returned to Haiti. But the judge considered the issue because more inmates are bound to face the same situation as Lacroix in the future.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.