Miami-Dade formally abandoned its status Friday as a “sanctuary” for unauthorized immigrants, backing Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s recent decision to mollify President Donald Trump by detaining jailed inmates sought for deportation by the federal government.
County commissioners rejected hours of impassioned testimony from residents who implored the board to stand up to the mayor and the White House. More than 150 people spent the day at County Hall delivering an often eloquent defense of immigration and South Florida’s vaunted diversity; only a small number supported Gimenez’s action.
“Shame on you!” members of the crowd cried after the 9-3 vote, hurling bits of paper and white carnations at the dais and standing up to stomp out of the chambers. “May God have mercy on your soul,” one woman hollered.
Voting to endorse Gimenez’s action were Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Vice Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Sally Heyman, Joe Martinez, Dennis Moss, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto. Voting against were Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava, Jean Monestime and Xavier Suarez. Commissioner Barbara Jordan was absent.
Gimenez cast the policy as a mere return to county practice from four years ago, before Miami-Dade stopped complying as a matter of course with detention requests because the federal government wouldn’t pay for the extra jail time. It never stopped sharing information about inmates with the feds.
“Miami-Dade is not — has never considered itself — a sanctuary community,” Gimenez said.
But the county effectively acted as a “sanctuary” jurisdiction before Gimenez issued his Jan. 26 directive, which agreed to hold inmates for Immigration and Customs Enforcement even if the feds don’t reimburse the county for its expense — reversing a policy commissioners unanimously set in 2013. The mayor acted after Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order banning “sanctuary” communities and promising to cut off federal funds to any cities and counties that defied him.
There is no legal definition of a “sanctuary,” and a slew of attorneys who addressed the commission Friday said Miami-Dade wouldn’t be affected by Trump’s order because the county has never stopped sharing information about inmates with the feds.
“You are in compliance with federal law,” County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams told the board.
After becoming the first big-city mayor to appease Trump, Gimenez drew weeks of protests at County Hall from activists who said revoking the county’s sanctuary stance represented an unacceptable rebuke to deeply blue Miami-Dade’s immigrant identity. More than half of the county’s residents are foreign-born.
“This is a day that will define Miami-Dade County for the future,” said Monestime, the board’s first Haitian-American member. “Today cannot be about money, Mr. Mayor. It must be about justice. It must be about dignity.”
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.”
Gimenez, like Trump, is a Republican, but the commission vote did not break cleanly along party lines. Three Democrats — Edmonson, Heyman and Moss — sided with the administration. No Republicans voted against the mayor; Levine Cava and Monestime are Democrats, and Suarez is registered without party affiliation. All county posts are nonpartisan.
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.
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.
The day’s debate was striking because it featured so many immigrants or children of immigrants — almost all of them Hispanic — taking markedly different positions on how to treat people who are in the country illegally, as many of them or their ancestors once were. “Yo soy un inmigrante,” said Gimenez, who was born in Cuba.
“We’re all immigrants. We all have very sad stories,” said Sosa, who is also Cuban-born. But she echoed Gimenez’s line that the county was merely making a financial decision that only affects people booked on local charges.
“We’re talking about prisoners,” she said. “We’re talking about people who committed crimes.”
The detention orders keep people in local jails for an extra 48 hours, plus weekends and holidays. The people being held generally have been charged with a crime, but not convicted.
After speaker after speaker said they feared the county’s stance would deter unauthorized immigrants from reporting crimes, Gimenez maintained that his administration would oppose any effort by the feds to deputize local cops into enforcing immigration law.
“We will not act as immigration officers,” he said. “Not now. Not in the future.”
The mayor and his aides worried Miami-Dade’s refusal to fulfill immigration “detainer” requests could hurt the county’s odds of getting millions of dollars for public-transit projects that Gimenez and Bovo have eyed as part of their political legacies.
The perceived trade-off — detentions for transportation money — did not sit well with people like Juan Carlos Carabantes, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who lives in Homestead and has been protected from deportation by former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“I hope your shiny train is worth my sister being deported,” he almost spat into the microphone.
A majority of commissioners, however, dismissed most of those concerns as overwrought. They argued they were making a narrow decision that would affect only a small sector of the community: unauthorized immigrants charged with wrongdoing.
“You all have been misled, you really have,” Martinez said. “And that’s what’s sad.”
Souto suggested the undocumented should do more to get right with the law — though some people have no legal recourse: “Recommendation to everyone: Get your things in line,” he said.
Commissioners’ matter-of-fact debate — in which several of them recalled arriving in Miami as refugees — came after hours of emotionally charged testimony that reached its heartrending peak when Bovo called up Nora Sandigo, a well-known activist who helps children whose parents have been deported.
She held four young children by the hand and received a standing ovation, in defiance of decorum rules. Then, each of the kids, ages 7 to 10, spoke.
Struggling with the pronunciation of one of her words before heading to the lectern, 9-year-old Ashley asked Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Pérez for help.
“De-POR-ted,” Pérez said, leaning down to sound out the word written on Ashley’s typed script.
Moments later, she told commissioners: “My father was deported.”
Then she beamed back at Pérez.