Facing the ire of President Donald Trump and the federal government, Miami-Dade County folded.
That was the legal argument presented Thursday by lawyers challenging Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to allow certain immigrants slated for deportation to be kept in jail as part of the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
“It’s nothing more than the federal government threatening and blackmailing states and Miami-Dade County,” said Philip Reizenstein, an attorney for a Haitian national slated to be sent home from Miami after he rang up a series of traffic offenses. “Hold somebody illegally or you’re not going to get the money that we would otherwise designate to you.”
A Miami-Dade circuit court judge heard the arguments Thursday in the case of James Lacroix, who had lived here legally before being ordered deported after a series of felony convictions for driving with a suspended license.
Lacroix pleaded guilty on Tuesday, ending his jail term. But he was not released from custody. Rather, Miami-Dade jailers kept Lacroix jailed for 28 hours until federal agents picked him up from the county’s main detention center.
Even though Lacroix has already been turned over to the feds, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch is nevertheless considering the legality of the policy because other people will continue to be kept in jail on behalf of the federal government. The judge will rule on Friday morning.
Thursday’s hearing was the first legal challenge to Gimenez’s much-criticized decision to begin cooperating with federal agents who have been empowered under Trump to dramatically step up deportations — a policy that generated protests across the nation, including South Florida.
County attorneys appeared in court to defend the policy, saying the county could only hold people like Lacroix for up to 48 hours. And Miami-Dade state court was not the right place for him to appeal his detention, said Assistant County Attorney Michael Valdez.
“Those are matters exclusively of the jurisdiction of the federal court,” Valdez said.
Unlike cities such as San Francisco, Miami-Dade never formally declared itself a “sanctuary” city, a label criticized by Trump and many of the president’s supporters. But since 2013, Miami-Dade has refused to uniformly detain inmates who are in the country illegally and wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE).
The county’s decision four years ago limited detainers to people with felony convictions or those being sought on non-bondable offenses. Even then, Miami-Dade would only honor the detainers if the feds agreed to reimburse the county the cost of housing the inmate.
Last year, the county declined to hold about 100 inmates wanted by the feds. Keeping them in local jails would have cost about $52,000 — a relative drop in the bucket for a county with a total annual budget of $7 billion.
The county’s 2017 budget reveals it is counting on receiving $355 million in federal funds — money that subsidizes elderly services, beds for the homeless, police officers and other government expenses. It is unclear how much of that money, if any, the federal government could have actually cut off.
Trump, who was elected after months of heated rhetoric promising to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, in January issued an executive order promising to cut off federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities. In response, Mayor Gimenez ordered the county jail system to honor all requests from ICE.
Lacroix’s lawyers, Reizeinstein and Kristen Kawass, insisted that the county is barred by the Constitution from keeping someone even a second after their sentence is done.
“Forty eight hours is a long time. We don’t hold people in this country for 48 hours while police do their investigation,” Reizenstein said. “Or 24 hours. Or one hour.”
The legal conflict is also a violation of the 10th Amendment, which limits the reach of the federal government, he said.
“We have a Republican governor. We have a Republic Legislature in the state — a conservative legislature,” Reizenstein said after the hearing. “They’re all for state’s rights, except for some reason, on this issue.”