Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 | 9:43 a.m.
MIAMI — The mayor is an immigrant, and more than half its residents are foreign born.
But unlike many cities with large numbers of immigrants, there's no sanctuary for people living illegally in Miami-Dade County, Florida. A recent decision by Mayor Carlos Gimenez requires local authorities to cooperate with federal officials to enforce immigration law.
The decree by Cuban-born Gimenez has roiled the area, drawing criticism from the mayors of the cities of Miami and Miami Beach. The county's commissioners have called for a special meeting Friday to confront the mayor on the issue.
They're not the only ones who are unhappy with the mayor. Immigration advocates and others opposed to the shift have filled the streets in protest, and a long-standing divide between Cuban-Americans and other Latinos has reappeared. Meanwhile, farmworkers who have lived in the area for years to plant and harvest vegetables on vast commercial farms fear they'll be deported.
"I have four children. To get picked up like that would break me," said Itzel, 23, who arrived as a baby from Mexico, works in nurseries near the city of Homestead and whose children were born in this country. She spoke on condition that her surname not be used because she fears deportation.
"I would be lost in Mexico. I've never been there. I've never traveled out of here," she said.
Gimenez says his order to end Miami-Dade's status as a sanctuary city, where policy forbids local police from enforcing federal immigration laws, was a financial decision. President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that would cut federal funds to local governments that did not fully cooperate on immigration enforcement. But immigration advocates say Gimenez's decision sends the wrong message at a delicate time.
"To be fair, in a community where 50 percent were not born here it sends an erroneous and a somewhat negative image of our community," said County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who was born in Cuba.
The divide, however, is also rooted in immigration policy that gave preferential treatment to Cubans fleeing the island's communist government. For more than 50 years, Cubans arrived to open arms in the U.S. and were able to become citizens much more easily than people from other countries.
"Cuban families, in a general way, haven't been as aware of what it means to be undocumented in this country," said Michael Bustamante, a Florida International University expert on contemporary Cuban history. "They have had a different process to achieve legal status. Not to say that they haven't faced other difficulties."
Miami-Dade is the only county in the U.S. where a majority of residents— 51.7 percent— were born abroad. But the share of immigrants living there illegally is lower than places like Houston or Atlanta, precisely because Cuban immigrants could quickly get employment authorization cards, a social security number and become legal residents.
But that's changed. Former President Barack Obama in January announced that Cubans without residency or visas would be treated as any other immigrant with similar status.
Many of Miami's Cubans have openly embraced Trump's ideas on immigration. Hillary Clinton may have won 63 percent of the vote in Miami-Dade County, but Trump drew more votes than Clinton in the three heaviest Cuban-American neighborhoods.
Ibrahim Reyes, a retired furniture salesman who was having coffee and reading a newspaper in Miami's Little Havana recently, said he supported the president's efforts to deport criminals and his actions toward Mexico, noting the country supported Fidel Castro after Cuba's revolution.
"It's bad what is happening in Mexico," Reyes said. "But they didn't show solidarity toward us when we were refugees."
In 2013, Miami-Dade commissioners passed a resolution that local law enforcement officers would comply with federal immigration officials only in cases of serious charges or convictions and only when the federal government agreed to reimburse the county for holding an offender in jail for more than two days. Longer detention while awaiting deportation was costing local taxpayers, Miami-Dade officials said.
The move put the county on a list of sanctuaries in a 2016 Justice Department report. Gimenez contested the designation, and then on Jan. 26, a day after Trump announced he would strip federal funding from sanctuary cities, Gimenez sent a memo instructing the corrections director to honor all immigration detainer requests.
Gimenez defended his decision on local TV and said the county's police were not actively chasing suspects in the U.S. illegally or asking for their immigration status — they were only agreeing to hold people flagged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"I'm an immigrant. I believe in comprehensive immigration reform. I believe that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in our county are law-abiding citizens — never had a run in with Miami-Dade police," Gimenez said.
He acknowledged that immigration authorities had already requested 27 people be held during the first week of the order, and, reading from his smart phone, said they were wanted on charges including murder, domestic violence, petty theft and drug trafficking. County officials later said an additional seven immigrants had been arrested as of Feb. 9, bringing the total to 34.
Marina, a 34-year-old Mexican woman who arrived in Homestead in 1999, said she wishes the mayor would recognize the contribution migrants make to the region's agriculture and construction industries and protect families like hers.
"All of us," she said, "We are Latinos."