When Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced in January 2017 that the county would no longer be an unofficial "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants, activists worried the policy would deter some victims from reporting crimes. Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez assured residents they shouldn't be afraid to call 911 or cooperate with officers.
"We need victims and witnesses to know that they can come forward," Perez told CBS Miami.
But in some cases, the police department does share information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Case in point: In February, MDPD alerted federal agents about a 38-year-old mother of three who was simply trying to get paperwork for her visa application. Mabel Perez-Ordonez, a crime victim who was cooperating with police in an open investigation, was detained by ICE and nearly deported to her native Nicaragua.
After two months in detention, Perez-Ordonez was released on bond this past Tuesday and allowed to return home to her children and partner. In an interview with New Times, she said other undocumented immigrants should be "very careful" about interacting with police. Asked if she would think twice before contacting cops in the future, she didn't hesitate.
"Sí," she responded.
Immigrant rights advocates have long argued that harsh policies at the local level push undocumented people farther into the shadows and can discourage crime victims from contacting law enforcement. In May 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union published survey results showing many immigrants were avoiding police at all costs. Police officers reported immigrants were less likely to cooperate with investigations, making it more difficult to close cases of domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual assault.
The New York Times has reported similar findings. Police say the fear of immigration consequences caused a sharp decline in the number of crime reports filed in 2017 in Houston, Los Angeles, Denver, and San Diego.
"Undocumented immigrants and even lawful immigrants are afraid to report crime," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told the Times. "They’re seeing the headlines from across the country, where immigration agents are showing up at courthouses, trying to deport people."
Miami-Dade Police spokesman Det. Christopher Thomas tells New Times that while county officers don't routinely ask people about their immigration status, there are occasions when police must inform the feds about an undocumented person.
"We're still a law enforcement agency," he says. "Our purpose is to enforce the laws according to our jurisdiction." (See below for a full statement from MDPD.)
Perez-Ordonez says the experience of being detained was "very traumatizing." After cooperating with Miami-Dade Police in 2010 after a man exposed himself to her, she started applying for a U visa, available to crime victims who help with investigations. MDPD certified her application, but she needed to pick up more paperwork at a Miami Lakes substation. When she arrived, police notified ICE she was in the waiting room. Perez-Ordonez was handcuffed by agents as her horrified 21-year-old daughter pleaded with them to let her mom go.
Perez-Ordonez told officers she had an 18-month-old daughter at home. She remembers a cop telling her the child was "a baby that shouldn't have been born here."
Perez-Ordonez was taken first to the Krome Service Processing Center in Southwest Miami-Dade, then to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach. About a week later in the middle of the night, she was taken to the airport, where she was handcuffed and shackled at the waist and ankles. Perez-Ordonez says she could barely open a water bottle while she waited about 20 hours with other detainees to board a flight. When she had to go to the bathroom, a guard uncuffed only one of her hands.
"They treated her like a common criminal," says her attorney, Michelle Sanchez.
The plane eventually landed in Louisiana, where Perez-Ordonez was booked into the LaSalle Detention Center and very nearly deported. Sanchez was able to get a stay of removal for Perez-Ordonez, who was ultimately returned to Broward County. On April 16, a federal judge allowed her to post bond, and she was released to her family in Hialeah.
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Perez-Ordonez's U visa application is still pending, but it could take close to five years to process thanks to a tremendous backlog. Her next court date isn't until January 2020.
Perez-Ordonez told New Times she spoke with other immigrant detainees who had been picked up due to traffic tickets or other minor offenses. She knows at least one person who was rounded up at a bus stop. That's why she says others in her situation should be cautious about trusting police.
"She saw a lot of injustice in there," says her partner, Juan Hidalgo.
Official statement from MDPD:
The Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) is committed to protecting and serving all Miami-Dade County residents and visitors, providing fair and responsive police services to our large and diverse community. Consistent with our policy, we remind the community that the enforcement of immigration laws is the responsibility of the federal government and those specific federal agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which are delegated such authority. Although, the MDPD will not perform as an immigration enforcement agency, it is required to share information and notify its federal partners under certain circumstances, in accordance with Title 8 U.S.C. §1373. Despite this obligation, our residents and visitors should feel confident that MDPD will discharge its duties without regard to a person’s legal status.