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From 'Sanctuary City' And Back Again: Inside Miami-Dade's Five Year Journey

Miami Herald
Protesters block the entrance to Miami-Dade County Hall following the January 2017 decision from Mayor Carlos Gimenez to start honoring ICE detainer requests.

Five years ago this month, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman hosted a press conference at County Hall. It was a few days before Christmas and just recently, with a unanimous vote, the County Commission had ended the practice of honoring requests from the federal government to hold immigrants arrested for local crimes for up to 48 additional hours. 

Those rounded up by federal authorities in these “detainer requests,” as they’ve come to be known, would be deported back to their countries of origin.

Heyman had led the charge in the battle against the Obama administration’s deportation machinery. Now she was tooting her own horn in a move that led to Miami-Dade County being considered a sanctuary city.

“For once we’re not part of the problem; we are the solution,” said Heyman. She blasted the previous arrangement, where the county would hold immigrants in custody for the federal government, as not only costly for local taxpayers, but “extreme,” “inhumane” and “truly unjustified.”

Joining Heyman on stage that day was Jonathan Fried, the executive director of the immigrant workers rights group WeCount!, who introduced her before she went on to speak. “I think it’s a very important trend throughout the country that local governments … are taking the lead and saying ‘we don’t want to participate in this exaggerated immigration deportation system that is breaking up so many families,’” said Fried.

Flash forward to today, and Fried’s organization has an open federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade County for its decision to reverse the momentum of that victory in 2013. It’s one of a pair of lawsuits against the county that federal judges have in recent weeks allowed to move forward in federal court, despite Miami-Dade’s attempts to quash them.

Watch a segment of the Dec. 18, 2013 press conference above

Counties and cities across the country have opted to push back against the Trump administration’s immigration agenda, drawing lines in the sand between local and federal cooperation. But Miami-Dade, despite being a haven for immigrants in the country, quickly became an outlier among major metro areas. In January 2017, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued an order saying the county would start honoring immigration detainers once again, making him the first mayor of a major metro area to do so. The County Commission followed his lead, passing a 9-3 vote and solidify the change of policy.

In 2017, six Miami-Dade county commissioners reversed their previous votes from 2013. Heyman was one of them.

This is the story of why Miami-Dade County made the decisions that it made, even as advocates and immigrant rights groups have mobilized against them.

On a recent afternoon out of WeCount!’s offices in Homestead, WLRN played a tape of Heyman speaking at the December 2013 press conference. Fried listened, nodding his head in agreement.

“I agree with that Sally Heyman, the one that said it’s a great social issue and one in which the commission could take action and bring a huge difference in people’s lives,” said Fried.


To understand the commission’s 2013 decision, it’s important to understand the context in which it was made. At the end of 2012, the Department of Homeland Security changed its guidance policy of immigration detainer requests, leading many attorneys to interpret detainers as merely requests to comply with the federal government -- not obligations.

Following that shift, in February 2013, members of the Miami law firm Kurzban Kurzban Weinger Tetzeli & Pratt met with officials at the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections. The law firm regularly represents clients who have had ICE detainer requests placed on them. Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez brought the two sides to the table for the meeting after he caught wind that the law firm was considering a lawsuit against the county over the practice.

“Litigation really doesn’t help anybody,” said Martinez, recalling his thinking at the time. “And if we could address it through a change in procedure or policy we were going to do that.”

After the meeting, the county attorney’s office sent a memo to Mayor  Gimenez’s office, saying it agreed with the legal arguments the attorneys were presenting, according to a paper trail of public records.

The legal argument, according to the county attorney’s office memo, was as follows: The county is under no obligation to honor these requests, as they are “not mandated by federal law or regulations.” This was now the county’s official legal stance on the issue.

At the same time, the Miami-Dade County budget was in tatters. Libraries were under threat of closing. Firefighters, usually a sacred cow of local governments, were facing potential layoffs. The county fire department’s unit that responds to venomous snake bites was on the chopping block.

Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN
Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount. His organization was previously aligned with the Miami-Dade Commission on ICE detainers, but is now suing the county.

The county was looking for ways to cut fat. Part of that job fell to Commissioner Sally Heyman, the chair of the public safety committee.

“At any given time our budget is a challenge, but in addition to the tremendous cost, as chair of public safety, I kept looking at Corrections and saying, ‘where’s deficiency and what can we do better?’ ” Heyman said at the time.

Honoring detainer requests “stood out,” she said.

Heyman drilled down on the fact that local taxpayers were footing the bill for inmates who were being held an additional 48-hours at the request of federal authorities. Between 2006 and 2013, Mayor Gimenez would later estimate, the county billed Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nearly $2 million for holding immigrants on its behalf, but was only reimbursed for $2,000 of it.

And there were other hidden costs.

When somebody is booked into Miami-Dade County Jail on local charges, that person or the person's family will typically post bond to get out before facing trial. But if that person is also facing a detainer request , the calculus of the situation changes.

“All of a sudden the family members are like: ‘What? We’re gonna post bond? It’s a waste of money because [ICE is] gonna pick them up,’ ” said Public Defender Martinez.

The public defender’s office started advising clients not to post bond; instead of getting released after paying bond, they would be transferred to ICE custody. Deportation proceedings would then commence. With no incentive for many inmates to bond themselves out, suddenly the county jail was housing people for much longer than usual.

Honoring ICE detainees cost the county millions in extra, hidden dollars caused by longer jail stays, Martinez argued in public hearings. It was money for something that the federal government should be handling on its own dime, he said.

Commissioners listened. And they agreed this was a waste of local taxpayers’ money.

“We’re no longer gonna keep em’ and pay for it, and disrupt their lives, cost them money, cost the citizens a lot of money and not be reimbursed,” Heyman said in a November 2013 public safety committee meeting. “That’s our status right now.”

On Dec. 3, 2013, a vote on the issue came before the County Commission. It passed unanimously. Unless the federal government would fully cover the cost of detainers for local taxpayers, the county would no longer honor them as a matter of policy.

The resolution also took aim at the Obama administration.

While Mayor Gimenez told WLRN in an interview that the 2013 policy shift was strictly financial, the resolution’s language shows otherwise, inferring a sense of empathy. The resolution notes that “a record 409,849 people were deported from the United States during the fiscal year ending in 2012” and that “nearly a quarter of the total deportations between July 2010 and the end of September 2012 involved parents of children who are United States citizens.”

Miami-Dade was one of 145 counties and cities that took steps to stop honoring detainer requests in 2013 and 2014, including other major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Tampa, Washington D.C, New York City and others.

We're no longer gonna keep em’ and pay for it, and disrupt their lives, cost them money, cost the citizens a lot of money and not be reimbursed. -Sally Heyman, November 2013

The Obama administration wasn’t happy. An internal ICE document created in 2014 showed thousands of ICE detainer requests were now being denied now that it was clear they were voluntary and not legally obligated. The document was obtained by a staffer of a non-profit group called the Center for Immigration Studies, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers an anti-immigrant hate group.

In 2016, that staffer presented the report to Congress, which sparked a conservative outcry. Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason then asked the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate whether local cities and counties were breaking federal law by not honoring the ICE requests.

She also asked the Office of the Inspector General to investigate whether Department of Justice grants should be cut to those jurisdictions.

In May of 2016, the inspector general's office issued its report, placing Miami-Dade County on a list of so-called “sanctuary” cities, alongside o Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C. and others. The report detailed $10.8 million in Office of Justice Programs grants that Miami-Dade County was receiving at the time.

Legally speaking, the phrase “sanctuary” city lacked a coherent definition. Even when the Inspector General’s report used the term, it was quoting the Center for Immigration Studies, the anti-immigrant group.

The tide was changing. A month after the inspector general’s 2016 report was issued, Obama’s Department of Justice signaled that it might cutting funding for some grants to “sanctuary” cities.

That same year, in 2016, the Florida Legislature considered a bill that would have preempted Miami-Dade County’s position not to honor ICE detainers unless it was reimbursed. Pushing back on the proposed law, the County Commission passed a resolution noting that local agencies that hold immigrants for ICE “on the sole authority of a detainer request violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, exposing such agencies to legal liability.”


On the campaign trail, Donald Trump raged against the multitude of crimes he said were being committed by undocumented immigrants: murder, rape, drug trafficking. He railed against the scourge coming across the southern border. And worst of all, he argued, there are places in this country that protect these people. If he won the presidency, Trump promised in a Phoenix rally to “end” sanctuary cities.

“Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars,” Trump said in August 2016.

Five days after being sworn into office, President Trump put his pronouncement onto paper. In an executive order, the president wrote that making sure sanctuary jurisdictions “do not receive federal funds” was hereby the policy of the executive branch of government. “Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States,” reads the order. “These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our republic.”

The following day, Mayor Gimenez made Miami-Dade the first major metro area to give Trump what he wanted. Gimenez issued his own executive order directing the Department of Corrections to start honoring ICE detainers. Trump was ecstatic, writing in a tweet to his millions of followers: “Right decision. Strong!”

“Communities labeled as sanctuaries by the federal government stand to lose federal funding,” wrote Gimenez in a statement. “In this fiscal year alone, Miami-Dade County received approximately $355 million in federal funding that is helping to fund critical programs in our public housing, transportation and police departments.”

The following month, county commissioners took up the issue because they didn’t feel the mayor’s order alone was legally sufficient for the change in policy it described.

Trump’s executive order hung like an existential cloud over the commission.

Martinez, the public defender, said the commission meeting was difficult to comprehend.

“It was surreal to be showing up back before the same commission, had the same commissioners that we had had before, and all of a sudden the arguments that were being made before as to why pass the resolution to begin with, all of a sudden that was insufficient,” said Martinez, who spoke  to commissioners on the issue in both 2013 and 2017. “To me there was nothing that changed other than an election and a threat by the president.”

The resolution passed with a 9-3 vote. Commissioner Heyman sponsored it. Six commissioners (Heyman, Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto, Esteban Bovo Jr., Bruno Barreiro and Audrey Edmondson) voted against their previous positions.

Commissioner Jean Monestime, the board's first Haitian-American, who co-sponsored the 2013 resolution alongside Heyman, said in opposing the measure: "This is a day that will define Miami-Dade County for the future."

The resolution and the mayor’s order didn’t only declare that Miami-Dade would start honoring detainer requests. They specified that the federal government didn’t have to reimburse the county anymore. The rationale of saving local taxpayers money on a job that should be funded by the federal government was out the window. Ridding the county of the “sanctuary” label was more important.

“We were labeled a sanctuary city by the Obama administration and the Justice Department because we were requesting reimbursement from the federal government for detainer requests,” said Gimenez, explaining the county’s movement on the issue in a Fox News segment. “What I did is I said we no longer have to have that voucher from the federal government saying they’re going to pay us for detaining these people of interest to Immigration. That’s all we did. And by doing that it took us off the list of being a sanctuary city.”

To me there was nothing that changed other than an election and a threat by the president. - Carlos Martinez, Miami-Dade County public defender

Behind the scenes, Commissioner Heyman had already been pushing Washington to stop labeling Miami-Dade County as a “sanctuary” jurisdiction even during the Obama administration.

“I honestly felt we should not accept a label -- I don't care what it is or who it is -- without a definition,” said Heyman in an interview. “Why would we allow our county to be labeled something possibly to our detriment?”

The moment Trump was elected, Heyman said she had a “holy s**t” moment. “I panicked over it after the election results to say: ‘Now we really gotta get with Department of Justice and get us off the list,’” said Heyman. “I felt there would be great retribution.”

“The reality is we have a working relationship at all levels of government that includes the federal government. And I don't want to create antagonistic [relationships] in one area at the detriment of every other area,” she added.

The moment the County Commission took the vote changing its sanctuary status, protesters in the room yelled, “Shame!” More than 100 residents took to the mic to ask the county not to honor the detainer requests.

Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN
An anti-ICE protest in downtown Miami in June, 2018. Protesters voiced anger at federal immigration policies, but also at local officials who they see as working in collaboration with ICE.

Across the country, Miami-Dade County’s quick policy reversal was held up as a prime example of how lawyers said Trump’s strong-arm tactics were working.

Other “sanctuary” jurisdictions across the nation took a different approach.

The California cities of Santa Clara and San Francisco filed lawsuits against the Trump administration. The city of Chicago did the same.

The lawsuits alleged that the federal government was effectively coercing cities into adopting local policies that the president prefered. They noted the decision whether to honor an immigration detainer is at the discretion of local governments. Trump’s executive order attacked the division between federal and local authority, using federal dollars as a bribe or sorts, they argued.

“Miami [-Dade] made the determination that that it couldn’t risk the catastrophic defunding that the president said was at issue here when he issued this executive order,” Danielle Goldstein, deputy county council for Santa Clara, argued before a federal appeals court, using Miami-Dade as an example to prove a legal point. “[The executive order] put local jurisdictions to a daily choice whether they were going to hold to policies that were adopted by local elected lawmakers to protect local health and safety on the one hand, or on the other hand risk financial ruin.”

“For example, Miami [Dade] made the determination that that it couldn’t risk the catastrophic defunding that the president said was at issue here when he issued this executive order,” she said.

The Trump administration has so far lost both the California cases and the Chicago case, though the cases are facing appeals court decisions.

“Sanctuary” jurisdictions are still receiving federal funding and grants.

Commissioner Heyman told WLRN she took the actions she took because it was the responsible thing to do for the county to ensure it kept receiving federal dollars. Asked if the county was coerced into doing what it did, she said: “No.”

“As a lawmaker my one client is Miami-Dade County government,” she said. “I'm in this position to, I guess, write, rule and make law. And I have personal opinions about it, and I can't let that stand in the way of my obligation and oath.”

At the same time, she believes the president was probably overstepping his authority with the executive order.

“Yay for the courts,” she said. “Thank goodness it's someone else [who has] put him in those positions.”

In an interview with WLRN, Mayor Gimenez defended the policy change, though his reasoning has shifted. He said that since the county started honoring detainers again, Department of Corrections data shows that the majority of the people caught up in them have felony records and that many are repeat offenders. Activists dispute those numbers.

“In retrospect, really after looking at this data, it’s more than just the federal dollars. It’s, you know, when we did this I was unaware of who these folks were, what they’re being picked up for,” said Gimenez. “And so for me it’s also a case of public safety.”


Ever since the  2017 vote was taken, advocates have mobilized against the county’s decision to honor ICE detainers. Protesters temporarily shut down the entrance to County Hall the day after, and have since held rallies and marches across the region, often aimed at both the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies and local leaders who they say are going along with it. The chair of Miami-Dade County’s Democratic Party has urged his national party not to hold a potentially lucrative 2020 national convention in Miami Beach, in protest of the county’s choice to honor ICE detainer requests.

The pushback has also resulted in the county staring down a pair of legal challenges.

Short of a warrant or some sort of documentation providing for probable cause, the lawsuits allege, the detainer requests are not legally firm enough to hold someone in detention, even if it’s coming from the federal government.

One of the cases started in the parking lot of a grocery store in Homestead.

On a mid-May afternoon this year, a woman was arrested on charges of driving without a license. She is now in ICE custody and facing potential deportation. Like many people who have received detainer requests since February of 2017, according to county corrections data, she was originally arrested for a low-level offense.

Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN
Andres at his family farm in South Dade. His wife is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Miami-Dade County's policy of honoring ICE detainer requests. She is now facing deportation.

“She had a small accident, un choquecito,” said Andres, her husband, who lives on a farm in South Dade. “But the police arrested her and they immediately put a hold on her. We put down the bond money but it didn’t do anything. They just kept the money and gave her to ICE.”

The Central American couple’s three American-citizen children feel like their mother has abandoned them, said Andres. He hasn’t been able to visit her in ICE detention because of his own legal status, but his children have paid visits with the help of friends. Andres said his wife’s ongoing detention and potential deportation makes him scared to come in contact with law enforcement when he’s driving around. WLRN is withholding Andres’ full name because he fears retribution from authorities or vigilantes.

Andres’ wife is now an unnamed plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed against Miami-Dade County in July. The suit includes another unnamed plaintiff who was also picked up for driving without a driver’s license. WeCount!, the organization run by Jonathan Fried, who celebrated when the County stopped honoring detainers in 2013 with Commissioner Heyman, is also a party to the suit, along with the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

“We are asking the court here today to declare that policy that Miami-Dade passed as unconstitutional,” Alana Greer, an attorney working on the case, told WLRN just after the suit was filed. “We’re asking them to stop holding people on these holds, and we’re asking for damages for the over a thousand people and growing that have been harmed by this policy.”

The lawsuit seeks to become a class action suit, bringing in all people who have been impacted under the same case.

I have personal opinions about it, and I can't let that stand in the way of my obligation and oath. - Sally Heyman, 2018

The suit’s legal arguments are consistent with the Miami-Dade County government’s own legal analysis from before Trump came into office.

Mayor Gimenez said the county will fight the case. “Obviously we believe it is constitutional and I guess the courts will decide whether it is or not,” he said.

Another lawsuit was filed months after the detainers started being honored again in 2017. The suit was filed on behalf of an American citizen who was mistakenly held  in jail on ICE’s behalf even after he paid his bond on local charges and should have been released.

“We warned the county about the dangers posed by the premature decision to cave in to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant threats,” Amien Kacou, an American Civil Liberties Union of Florida immigrants’ rights attorney, said in a statement at the time.

A federal judge ruled in November that the U.S. citizen’s case against the county could move forward, after the county tried to have it tossed. Last week, a federal judge likewise ruled WeCount!’s lawsuit on behalf of Andres’ wife and another plaintiff could move forward.

U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen Williams wrote that the plaintiffs have “sufficiently alleged that the County’s policy and practice of honoring all detainer requests from ICE reflected the county’s deliberate indifference to the possibility that constitutional violations would result from that policy and practice.”

After listening to tape from 2013 when the county first agreed to stop honoring ICE detainers, Jonathan Fried said that with a few years of perspective to reflect on that moment, he sees things more clearly now.

“I think the commission showed a profound understanding of the issue,” said Fried. “What they didn’t show was a profound commitment.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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