County right on sanctuary vote, but mayor could have handled it better

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez discusses his plan to deal with immigrants with Nora Sandingo as she leaves the Miami-Dade County Commission chambers.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez discusses his plan to deal with immigrants with Nora Sandingo as she leaves the Miami-Dade County Commission chambers. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

For years Miami-Dade has tacitly been a de facto sanctuary community, a place that went out of its way not to hassle its undocumented residents. You know, the people who pick our vegetables, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our cars, care for our kids and generally do the scut work. They’re mostly brown or black, work for low wages and are uncomplaining. There could be as many as 150,000 living among us.

They’re petrified these days because of President Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration policy — and they have every right to be. The Trump “deportation force” will be bumped up by 10,000 agents, might include National Guardsmen and could even attempt to deputize local police to act as immigration agents. Unlike President Obama, who deported hundreds of thousands of illegal alien criminals but left law-abiding ones alone, the Trump policy targets all undocumented folks.

It was in this overheated political environment that the Miami-Dade Commission voted last week, 9 to 3, to support mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to comply with the president’s order on sanctuary cities. Henceforth, county jailers will hold undocumented criminals wanted by ICE for 48 hours after they’ve served their time or bonded out. The next step is deportation. The vote to support that policy did not send a reassuring signal to our undocumented neighbors or, for that matter, to nearly all Miami-Dade residents who started their lives in another country. They account for more than half of the county’s 2.6 million people.

Ultimately, the decision to side with the mayor — and, by extension, the president — was the right one. Too much money was at stake not to. But the entire issue was handled in a ham-handed way from the get-go. Gimenez acted too hastily, issuing his order to local jailers within 24 hours of the president’s sanctuary pronouncement. “Strong!” tweeted Trump.

But Gimenez was blunt when he should have been deft. The County Commission, at the six-hour public hearing, came off as insensitive and indifferent to the pleas of the hundreds of people who jammed the commission chamber. They wanted at least a symbolic signal that Miami is an inclusive community that welcomes and embraces all immigrants, legal or not, as long as they’re law abiding.

That wasn’t the signal the commission sent.

The mayor and nine commissioners voting for Resolution No. 1 said it was all about the money — $355 million that Miami-Dade expects to get from Washington, but might not if it disses the president by reverting to a 2013 policy of not holding inmates for ICE unless the county is reimbursed the cost. In fact, Miami-Dade was always holding inmates accused of serious felonies that ICE wanted for deportation. “Today cannot be about money, Mr. Mayor,” said Jean Monestime, the first Haitian American elected to the commission. “It must be about justice. It must be about dignity.”

That was generally the theme repeated by the more than 100 people who waited patiently for their 60 seconds to speak before the commission. Many recounted personal immigrant experiences with a passion and conviction I haven’t seen at County Hall since the debate almost two decades ago over gay rights. “This is Miami,” said an emotional Rafael Velasquez of Miami Beach. “This is a county where they’re proud to speak Spanish.” Spanish and Creole-speakers who were born elsewhere, as well as many Anglos, pleaded with commissioners not to pass a resolution codifying what the mayor had done. “I’m not a criminal, don’t treat me like one” pleaded Julio Calderon, who said he’s currently under an ICE deportation order.

There were a handful of speakers, wearing Trump campaign regalia, who backed the mayor and the president. Chaunce O’Connor, of Miami Beach, wearing an American flag draped around his shoulders, questioned the right of illegal immigrants to even speak before the commission. “If you’re illegal,” he all but shouted, “you have no rights.” Wrong, the undocumented have limited due-process rights, and one of the 12 commissioners present could have pointed that out, but didn’t.

The public hearing was an exercise in people speaking past each other and at cross purposes. It had an unsettling sideshow quality. It was run with a heavy hand by Commission Chair Esteban Bovo, who summarily cut off anyone who exceeded their one-minute time limit or whose comments strayed off topic. That is, everyone but Nora Sandigo, a saintly figure who cares for U.S.-born children whose parents have been deported. She appeared with four such children, all of whom spoke movingly about their loneliness and how much they miss their mom or dad. They were heartrending. But it had very little to do with the question at hand at hand, a relatively minor tweak of existing policy that already put the county in compliance with sanctuary city criteria.

In the end the affirmative vote backing the mayor’s decision (which was reviewed by the county attorney) to acquiesce to Trump was about money and protecting the flow of federal dollars from Washington. Also about keeping serious criminals off our streets and getting them out of the country. That’s all to the good. Not good was the heavy-handed way pro-immigrant residents were treated by a tone-deaf commission. Many commissioners are themselves immigrants, as they noted in their remarks. But remarkably unsympathetic ones, it seems, to the plight of the undocumented among us.

Yo soy un inmigrante, the mayor said after the vote. “I am an immigrant.” He should have said that loud and clear on Jan. 26 when he signed his order paying obeisance to Trump.