Miami-Dade in limbo as Trump cracks down on ‘sanctuary’ counties

President Donald Trump speaks to the Department of Homeland Security in Washington on Wednesday after signing executive orders on immigration.
President Donald Trump speaks to the Department of Homeland Security in Washington on Wednesday after signing executive orders on immigration. Bloomberg

Florida’s biggest county found itself in a precarious limbo Wednesday when President Donald Trump announced an executive action ordering the Department of Homeland Security to stop funding communities that act as “sanctuaries” for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Miami-Dade County doesn’t know if it will be affected by the directive because it’s waiting for the federal government to decide whether it formally qualifies as a sanctuary.

The county never explicitly declared itself one. But Miami-Dade effectively acts as a sanctuary: In 2013, county commissioners voted to no longer comply with federal law-enforcement authorities’ requests to indefinitely detain jailed undocumented immigrants. Miami-Dade didn’t object to the detentions but to the cost, which the feds didn’t fully reimburse.

That was enough for the Justice Department to list Miami-Dade as a sanctuary county in a May 2016 report. But Miami-Dade, spooked by Trump’s campaign threat to target such municipalities by reducing federal funding for police, asked for Justice to review the county’s standing for future reference.

“We’re supposed to have a final determination by the beginning of summer or end of spring” of this year, Michael Hernández, a spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said Wednesday. Gimenez, a Republican who said he voted for Hillary Clinton for president, attended Trump’s inauguration last week.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restricting immigration, lists Broward and Palm Beach as sanctuary counties, too, because since 2014 they haven’t honored immigration “detainer” requests unless they’re accompanied by a deportation order or warrant.

But unlike in Miami-Dade, those decisions were made administratively by the counties’ sheriffs’ departments. No vote has ever been taken by elected commissioners setting policy, which might be why the Justice Department didn’t include Broward and Palm Beach in the May 2016 report that mentioned Miami-Dade.

It’s unclear how much any of the three counties would stand to lose under Trump’s order if his administration brands them as sanctuaries.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott told reporters in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday that he had yet to read Trump’s order and called it a “federal issue.” Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who is from Miami, said, “if the federal law says one thing, it should be complied with.”

Last year, the Florida House — but not the Senate — voted to ban sanctuaries, a measure the American Civil Liberties Union estimated at the time could affect as many as 30 of the state’s 67 counties.

Trump seized on sanctuary cities as a campaign issue last year after the murder of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco by Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, who had been previously deported five times to Mexico. At his rallies, Trump, who infamously referred to some Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists,” prominently featured parents like Steinle’s, promoting the idea — unsupported by studies — that violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants are rampant.

Speaking at Homeland Security headquarters Wednesday, Trump named some of those parents in the audience and pledged to protect Americans hurt by what he insisted were “open borders.”

“We hear you. We see you,” Trump said. “And you will never, ever be ignored again.”

Trump’s order calls for the creation of a new office to help the victims of crimes purportedly committed by undocumented immigrants. Homeland Security will also be tasked with publishing a weekly list of those alleged crimes committed in sanctuary cities.

The president also restored Secure Communities, the controversial Bush-era program whose creation in 2008 prompted widespread backlash. The program pushed local police to share with the feds the names, fingerprints and other identifying information of foreigners caught committing crimes.

Police, who for years urged undocumented immigrants who witnessed or were victims of crimes to come forward without fear of deportation, complained the program undermined their work and turned them into unwilling immigration deputies.

Former president Barack Obama signed an executive order ending the program in 2013, putting in place an alternative approach focused on deporting undocumented immigrants convicted of dangerous crimes.

With his own signature Wednesday, Trump undid Obama’s action.

A group of kids and young adults visited Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to present him with Christmas cards and to ask him to protect their families from federal immigration authorities on Dec. 21, 2016.

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.