Penelope the python and her owner, Maria Valdez Moreno, were familiar figures on Ocean Drive, coaxing tourists to pay $10 to pose for photos with the exotic snake.
That was until state wildlife officers, part of a new patrol targeting the illegal exhibition of wildlife on South Beach, stopped Moreno and her friend, Alfonso Candelas Perez.
The officers only issued her a warning for the unlicensed display, but then they took an unusual and more severe step for a law enforcement agency in Miami-Dade County: They called federal immigration agents.
Now, the small-time snake show has Moreno fighting potential deportation.
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Moreno is angry, not only for being detained for 21 days at an immigration detention center, but also because the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confiscated Penelope, her 4-year-old ball python. Moreno wants the snake back, although an FWC spokesman stressed that she’d signed paperwork relinquishing ownership of the animal.
“For them, it’s just a snake but for me, it’s my pet. My little girl,” Moreno said in Spanish. “I swear nobody could ever take care of her like me.”
Even against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s aggressive push to deport illegal immigrants of all stripes, South Florida police departments rarely call U.S. Customs and Border Protection for such a minor offense, let alone one that does not result in an arrest.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, for one, believes such actions would set a bad precedent.
“I don’t like to see our police forces converted into an immigration force. I don’t think it’s healthy or helpful, but I can only speak to our police force, which would not do such a thing,” said Gelber, who added: “We don’t have control over Fish and Wildlife.”
But it’s also a step that some state lawmakers want to see happen more often in Florida. Last week, the Florida House of Representatives voted to pass a bill (HB9) that would push local law-enforcement agencies to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities. The bill, however, is not likely to become law as it faces an uphill battle in the state Senate.
Either way, the Trump administration’s goal to increase the pace of deportation has sparked anxiety in communities such as Miami, which is home to a large number of Latin American immigrants.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez drew ire last year when he ordered jailers to cooperate with all federal “detainers,” which would allow inmates to be detained for up to 48 hours for possible deportation, even if they are no longer facing local criminal charges. He cited worries that federal authorities may cut funding to the county if it was perceived as a “sanctuary” city.
Gimenez and county police, however, have balked at broader cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the streets targeting people who lack papers.
“That is not our job,” Gimenez said last February at a commission meeting. “And we will not act as immigration officers.”
FWC, however, is a state-run police agency, one that deals primarily with issues regarding wildlife and boating.
The agency does not have a set policy for when it calls federal immigration agents, according to spokesman Robert Kleppler.
“Since immigration enforcement is not a primary mission of the FWC, officers will frequently contact Border Patrol for more information and or guidance,” Kleppler said in an email.
That’s what happened on Dec. 14, when FWC officers were on South Beach, along with Miami Beach code enforcement officers, “addressing complaints of non-licensed individuals exhibiting wildlife,” according to an incident report.
Penelope the ball python was a regular on Ocean Drive. An Instagram account in the snake’s name shows it draped around the shoulders of wide-eyed children, tourists in Hawaiian shirts and muscle-bound shirtless men.
According to the report, Moreno and Perez offered undercover code enforcement officers a photo with the snake for $10.
Neither had a state license to exhibit wildlife and both were “unable to provide any documentation showing their legal status in the U.S.A., which prompted us to contact the U.S. Border Patrol,” FWC Officer Nelson Landa wrote in his report. Moreno, according to the report, had an expired Florida driver license’s account, while Perez had a license from Spain.
FWC agreed to hold the pair until Border Patrol could arrive because both “were wanted for deportation.” Miami Beach code enforcement officers also fined each $250.
Moreno, a native of Colombia, overstayed her visa, according to the police report. However, in a brief interview last week, she told the Miami Herald that her lawyer failed to fill out her immigration paperwork on time. She declined to name her lawyer.
The FWC report described Perez, a native of Spain, as having been deported once before, in January 2017.
However, Perez told the Miami Herald that he was never actually detained by the border patrol that day in South Beach though he spent several hours in police custody before he was released. He said he remains living in the United States legally.
“I am not illegal,” Perez said. “I am totally legal.”
Both said they were beloved by the restaurants on Ocean Drive, where they usually posed for tourists.
In recent months, FWC has expanded efforts to crack down on the cottage industry of wildlife exhibition on South Beach. The agency is among several leading efforts to control the spread of Burmese python, an invasive species that can grow to 18 feet and is threatening wildlife in Everglades.
Ball pythons like Moreno owns are one of the most popular reptiles in the pet industry. They rarely exceed four feet in length and have only ocassionally been found in the wild.
The FWC even included a description of the case, without the names of Moreno or Perez, in a weekly news bulletin in December. Although neither person has actually been deported yet, immigration-rights advocates called it alarming.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been working with Miami Beach police and the city commission to try to codify rules that limit inquiries by police officers into a person’s immigration status and detaining illegal immigrants without an arrest warrant or judicial warrant.
So far, such rules have not passed the city commission, although Miami Beach police do not generally inquire about immigration status anyway.
“The fact the FWC is acting an ICE agents — how scary is that?” said Peter Beach, an ACLU activist who has been lobbying for the resolution. “It angers me.”
The FWC’s handling of the case could also strain relationships between fellow police and the community, according to immigration lawyers. That’s a concern that has played out in cities across the United States, but poses a unique challenge in Miami-Dade.
“They are inquiring as to immigration status and reporting those without legal status to Customs and Border Patrol,” said Miami immigration lawyer Lody Jean. “This has huge ramifications, including a chilling effect on victims and witnesses coming forward to cooperate with police. That’s a big deal considering the foreign makeup of the population of this county.”