Miami billionaire plans political fund to defend unauthorized immigrants

Protesters gathered outside the Broward Transitional Center to protest then-President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration policies in January.
Protesters gathered outside the Broward Transitional Center to protest then-President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration policies in January. cjuste@miamiherald.com

To counter the Trump administration’s aggressive deportation policy, a billionaire Miami healthcare mogul plans to spend the next couple of years raising — and spending — serious cash to defend unauthorized immigrants in court.

Mike Fernandez, a Republican-turned-independent political megadonor from Coral Gables, intends to create a nonprofit political organization in coming days to aid existing groups that provide legal services to unauthorized immigrants facing removal from the U.S.

“Immigrants are key to the fiber and the economic survival of our country,” Fernandez said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “We are hard workers. We clean rooms. We herd cattle. We pick fruits. We care for the elderly. If we were not doing it, nobody would be doing it.”

Over the next two years, Fernandez hopes to raise at least $5 million for his bipartisan Immigration Partnership and Coalition (IMPAC) Fund. Even if he doesn’t, Fernandez said he intends to spend the money from his own pocket to assist agencies like Catholic Legal Services and the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice. He said he’s already committed $500,000 to each group.

The assistance will go to defend only non-felons, according to Fernandez. (Unlawful presence in the U.S., in and of itself, is a civil violation.) Some of the money will also be used to educate immigrants of their rights, help them apply for residency or citizenship, and raise public awareness of what immigrants do for the economy, he added.

“It’s education,” Fernandez said. “It is also letting the federal government know that citizens are upset about it, and that they will have to fight us.”

Nora Sandigo, a well-known activist who helps children whose parents have been deported, pleads for calm during the immigration debate at Miami-Dade County Hall on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017.

Under Trump, the Department of Homeland Security expanded the categories of unauthorized immigrants prioritized for deportation, reversing the Obama administration’s most recent position.

“This policy that is being carried out is, if somebody is looking for a bank robber named Mike Fernandez and they come to my house and they find my grandmother and my mother who are undocumented, they take them in,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez, 64, cuts a colorful figure in local politics. A major backer of Republican Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, Fernandez vowed to support Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump. He paid for anti-Trump newspaper ads during the campaign — prompting a lawsuit threat from a Trump attorney — and endorsed and fundraised for Clinton, though Fernandez said he ultimately wrote-in Bush’s name on the ballot. Fernandez also sharply broke with most of his fellow Cuban-American Republicans on U.S.-Cuba policy, supporting former President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with the island’s communist regime.

After the presidential election, Fernandez switched his voter registration from Republican to no party affiliation.

It’s his background as a Cuban exile who grew up in New York that Fernandez said makes him compassionate toward the undocumented.

“I was thrown out of Cuba in 1964. It was Christmas Eve,” Fernandez said. “I arrived in Mexico with my family, as undocumented Cubans. I know what it is like to be hiding in a hotel room so you only get to play outside at night. My mother did not leave that room for the six months we were in Mexico.”

Healthcare executive Mike Fernandez of Coral Gables has founded a political committee to aid in the legal defense of non-felon unauthorized immigrants. Peter Andrew Bosch Miami Herald file

To back his effort, Fernandez has recruited a who’s who of South Florida’s civic and business community. Among the fund’s board members — who have pledged to raise from $35,000 to $100,000 each — are Cesar Alvarez, senior chairman of the Greenberg Traurig law firm; Bruce Berkowitz, chief executive of Fairholme Funds and Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College. Also among the board members are former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense and CNN commentator Ana Navarro.

Members of the fund’s steering committee have agreed to raised $1,000-$5,000 a year for three years. At-large supporters, who have agreed to lend their voice to the cause, include actor Andy Garcia and musician and producer Emilio Estefan, whom Fernandez said will cut an ad for the group.

Fernandez has hired immigration attorney Wendi Adelson as the fund’s executive director. Adelson is a former Florida State University immigration law professor who also directed FSU’s Human Rights and Immigration Law Project. Her brother has been investigated, but not charged, in connection with a criminal investigation into the high-profile murder of her ex-husband, the late FSU law professor Daniel Markel. Adelson herself has not been accused of wrongdoing.

For weeks, Fernandez has been traveling the country to build his coalition and meet with political heavyweights and business people who have backed similar pro-immigration efforts. He cited the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, an influential Chicago-area group of business leaders co-chaired by John Rowe, the former head of the Exelon electric utility and another former Bush donor.

Ideally, Fernandez said he’d like to collect $10 million for his fund, which will begin its work in Florida and then expand nationally. As a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization, the fund won’t have to disclose its donors or their donations.

“We are a great nation, and we should be able to overcome this issue with the facts, economic facts,” Fernandez said. “We’re a country that’s united by an idea ... and the idea is, we were all coming from a different place. It was that idea that accidentally proved that diversity makes for great nations.”