BY PATRICIA MAZZEI
Fed up with underwriting the nation’s broken federal immigration system, Miami-Dade County plans to stop paying the cost of temporarily housing undocumented immigrants in its jails.
The dramatic shift in policy comes at a time when the cash-strapped county is coping with a tight budget, but some county commissioners say they are also calling attention to what they say is a serious human-rights issue.
“Not only is it about saving money,” said County Commissioner Sally Heyman, a Democrat in a nonpartisan post. “It’s about saving people.”
At issue are Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s requests to keep prisoners in custody for 48 hours after they are scheduled to be released so that they can be turned over to federal authorities. Detainees are often deported soon after.
The so-called “detainers” are part of the contentious federal Secure Communities program, which is intended to encourage police and ICE to share names, fingerprints and other information to identify non-citizens who have committed serious crimes. Miami-Dade has taken part since 2009.
Nationwide, ICE removed more than 400,000 individuals last year, according to the latest figures.
The feds say the program, which began in 2008, is key to protecting public safety and national security.
But immigration-rights activists say the program has ensnared foreign nationals who have been picked up for minor violations, such as traffic offenses, and extended their detentions even if charges are dropped or they have made bail.
ICE updated its policies a year ago to limit detainers to dangerous criminals and repeat immigration-law breakers, avoiding the holds for people without prior convictions arrested for misdemeanors or cited for traffic violations.
Yet a distaste toward the holds lingers among immigration advocates, who persuaded county commissioners to change their minds by noting that the federal government doesn’t pay all of the tab for the detentions.
In Miami-Dade, it costs about $142 a day to keep a detainee in custody, Heyman said, without counting additional healthcare costs. The feds had negotiated a lower reimbursement rate with the county of about $82 a day.
However, they have no obligation to reimburse the county in full, especially for past instances in which Miami-Dade has held prisoners longer than 48 hours.
Miami-Dade has sent invoices for hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses a year. But federal records show the county has been paid far less than other, smaller Florida counties.
It’s unclear who, if anyone, is at fault. The feds could have denied the county’s proper reimbursement requests, for example, or Miami-Dade could have sent deficient invoices or not been aggressive enough in pursuing payment.
In a County Hall news conference Wednesday, Heyman denied any responsibility on the part of Miami-Dade’s corrections and rehabilitation department. She said some federal funds dried up earlier this year after across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.
While the detention costs are tiny for a county with an annual operating budget of $4.4 billion, commissioners scrounged for funds a few months ago when they faced the prospect of shuttering public libraries and laying off firefighters.
In September, the board backed activists’ plea to no longer comply with the detentions. The county attorney had opined in July that detainers were merely requests and not mandates.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican whose position is nonpartisan, estimated the change could save the county about $600,000 a year. Earlier this month, the commission, also nonpartisan and majority GOP, voted unanimously for legislation directing Gimenez to rewrite Miami-Dade’s detention policy.
In a statement Wednesday, ICE defended its program.
“The identification and removal of criminal offenders is ICE’s highest priority and over the past three and half years, ICE has been dedicated to implementing smart, effective reforms to the immigration system that allow it to focus its resources on priority individuals,” the agency said. “ICE has implemented clear priorities that focus on convicted criminals and other public safety threats, on those who repeatedly violate our immigration laws.”
By issuing a detainer, the agency noted, ICE asks to be notified before an individual is released in order to allow the immigration authorities to assume custody.
“The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities,” the agency said.
Cities and counties have grappled for years with how much to assist the federal government in enforcing immigration laws. Some have tightened the rules, saying the U.S. has not done enough. Others have limited their cooperation in the absence of comprehensive reform in Congress.
Critics of opting out of the detainer holds have accused politicians of undermining federal law and threatening public safety.
But Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount!, a Homestead group that defends immigrants, said Wednesday that aiding the feds hurts police because undocumented noncitizens fearing deportation are less likely to cooperate with local law enforcement.
“They don’t want to call the police when they’re victims or witnesses of crime,” he said, rattling off a list of other cities, including New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco, that have adopted a similar position against the detainers.
Activists’ main focus has been families divided by detentions that lead to deportations.
“We’ve seen so many families needlessly torn apart,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, a Miami advocacy group.
She pointed to Lucia Quiej, a Homestead mother of five who spoke through tears at the news conference.
In 2011, she said, the father of her children, Andres Jimenez, was driving to work when he was pulled over. He was driving with an expired license. He was also in the country illegally, after his political asylum petition had been denied.
So Jimenez, who like Quiej is from Guatemala, was placed under an ICE detention hold. He was later deported.
“My son cried, ‘Daaaaad!’” a weeping Quiej said in Spanish, holding one of her U.S.-born daughters, a toddler, in her arms. “I said, ‘You better forget him, son.’”