Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Miami on Wednesday to deliver a stark warning on the dangers of “criminal aliens” and praised the county’s mayor for being the first big-city leader to abandon “sanctuary” protections and detain local inmates for federal immigration officers.
“Sanctuary jurisdictions provide safe harbor for some of the most dangerous criminals in our country. That makes a sanctuary city a trafficker, smuggler, or a predator’s best friend,” Sessions said at PortMiami before an audience of local and federal law-enforcement authorities. “The people of Miami-Dade know that the rule of law guarantees equality and opportunity … Protecting this guarantee is why the government of Miami-Dade made its decision — and is working with federal law enforcement, not against us.”
Sessions celebrated the January decision by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to drop a 3-year-old county policy that had local jails refusing to extend the detentions of people booked on local charges while being sought for deportation by federal authorities.
While Sessions highlighted the criminal offenses of people subject to the detention requests, they also apply to first-time offenders and people charged with minor offenses. They also only kick in once the person would otherwise be free to leave a local jail. People accused of offenses serious enough to be denied bail would remain in a county jail, and not be turned over to immigration authorities.
Refusing the “detainer” requests had landed Miami-Dade on a list of “sanctuary” jurisdictions under the Obama administration. A week after Donald Trump took office, Gimenez ordered county jails to start honoring the detainer requests shortly after the new president promised to withhold federal funds to sanctuary cities.
The change drew fury from immigration activists toward the Cuban-born mayor, praise on Twitter from Trump, and, at the port, an official declaration from the attorney general that Miami-Dade no longer faced the sanctuary label.
“I’m here to announce that Miami-Dade is now in compliance, full compliance, and eligible for federal law enforcement grant dollars,” Sessions said. “This is good news for law enforcement and for the citizens of Miami-Dade. It means more money for crime fighting. It means we are partners, partners together, in keeping everyone safe.”
The remarks formalized an announcement by the Justice Department earlier in the month that Miami-Dade would continue receiving a $500,000 yearly police grant.
Gimenez sat in the front row, the lone elected official who showed up for a rare visit by the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Sessions mistakenly thanked Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the county’s state attorney and a Democrat, for being there, as called for in the prepared remarks. But she wasn’t in the terminal.
No member of the Miami-Dade County Commission, which voted 9 to 3 in February to back Gimenez’s policy change on immigration detainers, attended the event at the county-owned port, either. One of the commissioners who voted against the policy change, Daniella Levine Cava, issued a statement saying she was “appalled” by the Sessions visit to showcase Miami-Dade’s detention of immigration violators, which she said “seeks to divide our county and tear families apart.”
The Sessions speech also drew a protest of about 50 people in downtown Miami, as well as national condemnation from the United States Conference of Mayors, which stated the attorney general “doesn’t understand the Constitutional protections afforded to all people in our country and their impact on local policies.” Miami-Dade’s compliance with detention requests is the subject of two court challenges, alleging they amount to holding someone in custody without criminal charges.
Since Gimenez changed the county’s detainer policy Jan. 26, Miami-Dade has received 463 requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain suspects, and turned over 174 people. The requests ask jailers to hold someone for 48 extra hours. The extra detention gives immigration officers more time to apprehend the suspect for possible deportation.
Some subjects of the detention requests have just been arrested, and haven’t yet gone to trial. The latest county tally showed 70 percent have prior arrests on their records, while about 30 percent may be first-time offenders.
Miami-Dade remains the largest jurisdiction known to have dropped a sanctuary policy under Trump, and Gimenez’s decision sparked outrage from immigration activists, local Democrats and civil-rights organizations nationwide.
“Sanctuary city policies improve public safety, protect immigrants, and promote trust between communities and police,” Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement after the Sessions speech. “Instead of protecting Floridians, Mayor Carlos Gimenez turned his back on the community and Miami-Dade County became an extension of Trump’s mass deportation force.”
Gimenez, a Republican who backed Hillary Clinton last fall, did not speak to reporters after the event. He began the day issuing his first formal statement criticizing President Trump, slamming him for showing “ambiguity” toward racial violence in Charlottesville. In a private meeting with Sessions at the port, Gimenez urged the Trump administration to pursue comprehensive immigration reform and protection for “dreamer” children who came to the country illegally with their parents, a Gimenez spokesman said.
Sessions also touched on the Charlottesville violence. On Tuesday, Trump condemned white supremacists who participated in the rally there, while defending others whom he said supported preserving the Robert E. Lee statue in the Virginia city. He also blamed “both sides” for the deadly Charlottesville violence — which led to a woman being killed and 19 others injured after a car driven by an alleged Nazi sympathizer plowed into the counterprotesters.
“We’ve had a tough week,” Sessions told the Miami audience of about 150 people. “In no way can we accept, or apologize for, racism, bigotry, hatred, violence.”
Sessions used much of his speech to contrast Miami’s declining crime rate with a spate of murders in Chicago, which is suing the Trump administration over its own sanctuary policies. Chicago and other cities claim the White House can’t withhold federal funds based on declining the detention requests, which hold people after they would otherwise be free to go on local charges.
“In Chicago — a city with almost exactly the same 2.7 million person population as Miami-Dade — more than 433 people have been murdered just since the beginning of the year … That’s more than three times as many as Miami-Dade,” Sessions said. “Respect for the rule of law has broken down. In Chicago, their so-called “sanctuary” policies are just one sad example.”
Sessions mentioned governments in Michigan and New York that also changed their policies to comply with the immigration-enforcement rules, and Justice recently notified Clark County it was no longer considered a sanctuary jurisdiction.
While the 2013 county policy restricted Miami-Dade to honoring detention requests to people facing serious offenses, the Gimenez order — backed by the County Commission — ordered jails to honor all detention requests, no matter the offense the person faces.
Before the change, Miami-Dade had turned down all detention requests because of another requirement in the 2013 rules: that Washington agree to pay for the extra jail time. It never did, and a county spokesman said Wednesday Miami-Dade still has not been reimbursed for any detention expenses for immigration offenders.
This post was updated to reflect the Justice Department’s citation of other jurisdicitons that have changed “sanctuary” policies.