Miami-Dade County

In 2013, Miami-Dade knocked ‘blanket’ cooperation with immigration authorities. Will the defiance return?

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman supports Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s order that the county begin honoring requests by federal immigration authorities to hold detainees.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman supports Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s order that the county begin honoring requests by federal immigration authorities to hold detainees. Miami Herald file 2016

When Miami-Dade commissioners voted unanimously three years ago to stop honoring most detention requests from federal immigration authorities, Sally Heyman hailed it as a milestone for justice.

“Every once in a while, we are in a position to not only make social change, or make a difference, but help create a difference of such significance it literally equalizes what otherwise would be a great social injustice,” Heyman said at a Dec. 18, 2013, press conference hailing the legislation passed a day earlier that she had sponsored. “Not only is it about saving money. It’s about saving people.”

Heyman’s lofty statements contrast with the more practical arguments she has made in recent days defending Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s order to reverse the 2013 policy and begin honoring 48-hour detention requests for people already in a county jail on a local charge. Gimenez made his Jan. 26 order the day after President Donald Trump demanded cuts in millions of dollars in federal funds for “sanctuary” communities — cities and counties that defy detention requests.

“What the mayor did was make a financial decision,” Heyman said last week.

Every once in a while, we are in a position to not only make social change, or make a difference, but help create a difference of such significance it literally equalizes what otherwise would be a a great social injustice.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman

Heyman and other commissioners seem likely to get the chance to decide again whether to resume past defiance of Washington’s wishes when it comes to holding suspected immigration violators. On Thursday, commission chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo called for a rare special meeting for Feb. 17 to address Gimenez’s order, which has raised legal questions about his authority to alter adopted board policy.

The debate already touches on the original intent of the 2013 policy, which tied granting “detainer” requests to Washington reimbursing Miami-Dade for additional jail costs. As a rule, Washington refused, so the 2013 change meant Miami-Dade regularly declined the requests. One argument underway now is whether the 2013 change edged Miami-Dade into the “sanctuary” movement or was merely a way to save detention dollars at a time when a budget crisis had the county considering the closure of libraries, fire stations and a highly regarded boot camp for youthful offenders.

Both Heyman and Gimenez have been fighting Miami-Dade being declared a “sanctuary” jurisdiction since the Obama administration gave the county that label in a 2016 report. They cast the mayor’s recent order as a continuation of that process, which was aimed at protecting the more than $300 million in federal aid the county is set to receive this year.

Heyman said her 2013 comments were more aimed at what she described as much lengthier detentions in local jails once a federal detainer was issued. ‘These people,” she said of the suspected violators, “were literally forgotten.”

Jonathan Fried, executive director of the WeCount! farmworkers advocacy group in Homestead, joined Heyman for the 2013 press conference, which featured a local woman whose husband was deported after being held in Miami-Dade jails by an immigration-detention request.

“It wasn’t just about the money,” Fried said. “It was in part because of the recognition that Miami-Dade County didn’t want to play a role in these national deportations that were going on.”

Gimenez has cast his new policy as a tweak of the status quo bound to have only minor consequences, and a change that reasserts county policy to cooperate with federal authorities. “The Executive Order I signed yesterday reaffirms that Miami-Dade County has never been a sanctuary community,” Gimenez wrote on Jan. 27 amid a national backlash against his decision.

The 2013 resolution outlines significant costs tied to the detention requests, saying honoring them cost Miami-Dade $1.7 million in the two years before the new policy went into effect. But the legislation also highlighted a key argument made by protestors now demanding that Gimenez reverse his order and join other large-city mayors in fighting Trump.

Included in the lengthy “Whereas” section justifying the resolution was a statement that “a policy of blanket compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detainers could undermine trust between local police officers and the immigrant community of Miami-Dade County.”

The idea behind the statement is that the more cooperation a local government offers immigration authorities, the more distrustful undocumented residents will be of interacting with police in order to report crimes or turn in domestic abusers. In a Thursday letter to Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who questioned the mayor’s Jan. 26 order, Gimenez dismissed the concern as unfounded.

The Miami-Dade County Police Department will not actively question or seek out anyone’s immigration status. Accusations of this nature are fueling the fear and confusion of unwarranted detention in our community.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

“The Miami-Dade County Police Department will not actively question or seek out anyone’s immigration status,” Gimenez wrote. “Accusations of this nature are fueling the fear and confusion of unwarranted detention in our community…”

County authorities haven’t said whether anyone was caught up in a detainer request after Gimenez’s policy change last week. While the 2013 resolution passed at a time when the county said roughly 2,500 yearly detention requests cost almost $2,000 a day, Corrections reported a dramatic drop in 2016 to just 174 requests.

Gimenez said the drop in requests comes largely because immigration has gotten quicker in picking up suspects. Even after the 2013 resolution, Miami-Dade cooperates with federal authorities when someone charged locally gets flagged for a possible immigration violation. Miami-Dade jailers would share release times with immigration, but not grant requests to hold someone for an additional 48 hours. Under Gimenez’s new policy, they will.

Daniel Junior, the county’s interim Corrections chief, said one reason he thinks detainer requests went down is that Miami-Dade consistently declined to honor them, making the paperwork a futile effort for federal officers. “Somebody is actually emailing it to us or faxing it to us,” Junior said.

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