MIAMI – County commissioners in immigrant-rich Miami-Dade voted Friday to uphold their Cuban-born mayor's order to cooperate with federal immigration officials, drawing shouts of "shame on you" from those hoping to make their community a sanctuary city.
Though it's the only U.S. county where more than half the population is foreign-born, Miami-Dade has bucked a trend among some cities that have sought to defy federal immigration crackdowns out of sympathy with their large migrant populations.
The commissioners, voting 9-3, backed the order of Mayor Carlos Gimenez that was delivered after the administration of President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from the so-called sanctuary cities.
"This is a country that opened arms to everyone, allowed opportunities to everyone. But this is also a country of law," county commissioner Rebeca Sosa, also of Cuban descent, said before the vote taken in a special public session. "I am so sad to see that people are afraid of something that has nothing to do with immigration. This was just a financial decision."
In emotional public testimony, dozens spoke against the order, including school-age children of deportees, young people brought to the U.S. without legal permission as children, construction workers, lawyers and rights activists.
At one point, four school-age girls and a boy stepped up to the podium holding hands with Nora Sandigo, who has a foundation that helps and houses children whose parents have been deported.
"These kids are orphans because they took their parents away from them. I can't stand this much pain," Sandigo said.
Many of the people gathered at the meeting stood and shouted obscenities at the commissioners when they voted to uphold the mayor.
Hatian-born Jean Monestime was among the three commissioners to vote against the motion.
"Today cannot be about money. It must be about justice," Monestime said. "It must be about dignity it must be about the spirit of our community."
The debate has highlighted a divide between Cuban-Americans and immigrants from other countries, stemming largely from a former 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 counts 51.7 percent of its people as born abroad. But the share of immigrants living here without permission 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. In January, then President Barack Obama announced that Cubans without residency or visas would be treated as any other immigrant with similar status.
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 Friday and said the county's police were not actively chasing people or asking for their immigration status — they were only agreeing to hold people flagged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He said that most of the 34 people who have been requested by immigration authorities had previously committed crimes.
"Look. I am an immigrant myself," Gimenez said. "I can assure our residents that I will not comply with any executive order that will unfairly put our law-abiding immigrants at risk."
But Maria Bilbao, a 51-year-old Argentine who has lived in the U.S. for 16 years and is now obtaining residency, said the commissioners' support of Gimenez's decision is an anti-immigrant stance.
"They are broadening ways in which immigration officials can deport families," she said. "How can they keep a clear conscience"