When Attorney General Jeff Sessions flew to Miami in August, he promised “more money for crime fighting” as a reward for Miami-Dade dropping “sanctuary” protections from immigration violators at county jails.
But after nearly a year as one of President Donald Trump’s most lauded counties, Miami-Dade is still waiting for its federal windfall. Mayor Carlos Gimenez cited billions in rail funds Miami-Dade hoped to secure from Washington in defending the county’s immigration switch days after Trump took office. But when Trump’s transportation secretary visited Miami last fall, she offered help on permitting issues but noted: “Resources are an issue.”
Chicago is suing the Trump administration over Trump’s funding threats for sanctuary jurisdictions, but the Windy City received the same $3 million police grant from the Justice Department that Miami-Dade did in November. Before Trump became president, both jurisdictions rejected federal requests to detain people who were booked on local charges while being sought for deportation. Chicago still doesn’t, but Miami-Dade started honoring the “detainer” requests last January.
When Sessions came to Miami to cheer the county’s accepting federal requests to detain immigration offenders, the attorney general formally announced what Justice had told the county in a letter two weeks earlier: the switch on “detainers” meant the county was eligible to continue receiving help from the Byrne Grant program for local police agencies. Figures released this week by Miami-Dade’s budget office showed the county received about $700,000 in Byrne dollars last year — enough to fund the $680 million police budget for about eight hours.
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“The underlying arguments were not correct,” said Melissa Taveras, spokeswoman for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a Miami-based advocacy group that opposed Gimenez’s policy change. “What we’re doing is creating more fear among our immigrant community.”
With the Trump administration not even a year old, Miami-Dade could start to see an advantage in federal police funding as the Justice Department fends off court fights over its new rules and succeeds in toughening the screening for future awards.
Even if Miami-Dade doesn’t have any extra federal money to show for it yet, the county has won an extraordinary amount of praise from the Trump administration for Gimenez’s Jan. 26 decision to change county policy and accept the detention requests. That still could give the county a leg up in future years as the Trump administration doles out federal aid across the country ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Trump himself praised Gimenez twice on Twitter for the change, making the Miami-Dade Republican the only mayor in the country to merit two complimentary tweets from the commander-in-chief. In one of his earliest briefings, the president’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, urged Cincinnati and other self-declared “sanctuary” cities to follow Miami-Dade’s “lead” on immigration practices.
And it was Miami that Trump’s chief law enforcement officer picked for a major speech on sanctuary cities. At a PortMiami terminal, with Gimenez the only elected official in attendance, Sessions praised Miami-Dade and knocked Chicago as a city where “respect for the rule of law has broken down.”
Gimenez, a Republican who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, pointed to the federal money cities and counties compete for in Washington as a primary justification in a policy change to satisfy the new president.
“When President Trump put out his order, I thought, you know, I think this gentleman is serious,” Gimenez said on WPLG’s “This Week in South Florida” on Feb. 4. “And by the way, we have $350 million in federal funding that we receive every year. And not only that, we are going to try and get hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars for our transit system. Which is completely discretionary federal money.”
The real test on transportation dollars is yet to come: Miami-Dade has yet to pursue big transit dollars from the Trump administration, which is hoping to pass a major infrastructure bill in 2018.
Gimenez, who took office in 2011, noted that before 2013, Miami-Dade honored detainer requests issued by the Obama administration’s immigration agents. Statistics released this week showed the county was turning over far more suspected immigration violators to Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Obama than under Trump — 1,193 in 2012, versus 436 last year.
Immigrant advocates pressured county leaders to end the practice under Obama, which the Miami-Dade commission did by a unanimous vote in 2013. The new policy adopted that year instructed county jails to honor detainers only for people booked on serious charges. Even then, Miami-Dade said it would hold immigration offenders for federal authorities only if Washington agreed to reimburse the county for extra detention time — something the federal government refused to do.
Gimenez ended that county policy just six days after Trump took office last year, with the mayor instructing jails to honor all detainer requests. The County Commission endorsed the policy change weeks later in a 9 to 3 vote, following scorching criticism from immigration advocates accusing Miami-Dade of caving to empty threats from the new administration.
Chicago, San Francisco and other governments are suing the Trump administration to block enforcement of the president’s Jan. 25 executive order laying out the funding threat over detainer requests. A federal judge ruled the order unconstitutional in late November, but the Justice Department called the decision misguided as it appealed the ruling.
Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s communications director, said the mayor still believes the change on detainer requests will aid the county in future bids for federal funding. But he said Gimenez also endorses policy change for reasons beyond the financial considerations, saying Miami-Dade never should have stopped honoring detainer requests during the Obama administration.
“He thinks it’s the right thing to do,” Hernández said, referring to honoring detainer requests. “Immigration is a federal responsibility. And we are complying with immigration authorities. In fact, looking back now, Mayor Gimenez believes it was a mistake to have changed county policy back in December 2013.”