Miami Congressional Candidate Visits ICE Detention Center, Will Refuse Private-Prison Money

Congressional candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (left) toured the Krome Processing Center in Southwest Miami-Dade.
Congressional candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (left) toured the Krome Processing Center in Southwest Miami-Dade. Courtesy of Debbie Mucarsel-Powell for Congress
Carlos Curbelo, the congressman for South Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys who voted in 2017 for a failed Obamacare-repeal package and successful tax cut for the wealthy, appears to be trying to pin his 2018 reelection bid on a last-ditch effort to reinstate the DREAM Act. Curbelo's district voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — though his efforts are more than likely tied to the fact he wants to continue representing a heavily Latino swing district, some observers have questioned whether Curbelo's push is doomed because his own Republican Party can't seem to agree on whether it wants to give amnesty to undocumented child immigrants. (Plus, as Splinter notes, the actual GOP proposals in question are pretty weak.)

His opponent, meanwhile, the relatively unknown nonprofit worker Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, appears to be countering with an immigration push of her own. Last week, she toured the Krome Processing Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Southwest Miami-Dade, where she met with two ICE detainees trapped in what the candidate described as a needless stint behind bars.

Speaking with New Times at the end of last week, Mucarsel-Powell said that, after taking the trip, she pledged to not accept donations from private-prison companies, including Boca Raton's GEO Group, the massive Florida corporation that runs many ICE detention centers. (GEO does not operate Krome but does run the Broward Transitional Center roughly 60 miles north and other sites nationwide.) GEO operates an ICE facility in Colorado that has faced accusations of torture, as well as a facility outside Los Angeles where three detainees died in 2017. GEO has also been sued repeatedly for allegedly forcing immigration detainees to work.

"I personally have not taken any money from them," she told New Times. "And this is something I'm going to be very firm about."

Meanwhile, as a congressional candidate, Curbelo has accepted $11,000 from GEO, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. (Mucarsel-Powell's position is quickly becoming mainstream for Florida Democrats: Just yesterday, the civil rights group Dream Defenders announced that all four Democratic candidates for governor, along with ten other political candidates, have pledged to refuse private-prison money.)

Mucarsel-Powell said she visited two detainees: First, she spoke with a construction worker named Marvin who had been living in Miami for the past 20 years, she said. Marvin told her that his parents and children live in the United States legally but that he had not been able to obtain any kind of resident status for decades — and now fears being sent back to El Salvador, a country he hasn't visited in decades.

She said another detainee, a Cuban immigrant named Reinaldo, was living in the United States with a green card and working as a medical doctor in Little Havana. Mucarsel-Powell said the man got into a bar fight about 20 years ago, agreed to pay a fine, and had all but forgotten about the case. But upon his return to the States after he traveled back to Cuba to meet his newborn grandchild, he was detained at the airport and informed that "things had changed" and he was in line for deportation.

"It really shows you how broken the system is," Mucarsel-Powell said, adding it didn't seem necessary to keep either person behind bars. "Marvin seemed very depressed. He told me he's in tears all the time and keeps getting sick because it's cold in the detention center."

Asked what actual policies she'd propose to fix the situation, Mucarsel-Powell wasn't entirely specific, though she repeatedly used the phrase "comprehensive immigration reform." Asked to elaborate, she said she hopes to revamp the U.S. immigration system to make it much easier for immigrants to obtain visas and green cards. She also repeatedly said she wants to provide a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers.

ICE seems to be arresting people left and right and should be scaled back in some fashion, she said, adding, "There's a lack of transparency and a definite racial bias that has to change. We're facing a humanitarian crisis — we're seeing photos of children being kept in cages."

However, Mucarsel-Powell doesn't seem to be running as a true progressive when it comes to immigration. She declined to endorse the idea of abolishing ICE, a proposal that has rapidly gained steam on the Democratic Party's left during the Trump era. New Times also brought up that the number of offenses deemed deportable increased sharply thanks to a draconian 1996 law passed under President Bill Clinton. But Mucarsel-Powell didn't say whether she thinks those specific provisions should be scaled back to pre-'90s levels.

"Every country has to have immigration officers and has to be looking to protect its borders and the safety of its citizens," she said. "Anyone who has come here illegally and committed violent, hideous crimes needs to be deported and held accountable." However, she added that immigrants convicted of "minor offenses" could perhaps be fined or less severely punished.

"But right now, the reason we have millions of immigrants without papers is that there's no path for visas or work permits or a path to citizenship," she said. "The issue around Dreamers has somehow taken months to solve under a GOP-controlled Congress. That shows you the lack of political courage that any of these elected officials have right now."

In 2018, her immigration platform consists of party-line Democratic ideals and seemingly little more. Her biggest saving grace happens to be Curbelo, whose "moderate Republican" shtick remains incoherent and condescending, especially because, according to FiveThirtyEight's vote tracking, he's still desperately clinging to that "moderate" tag despite voting in line with Trump's wishes 81 percent of the time.

Curbelo and his cadre of congressional Republicans fought late into the evening last night to persuade 218 lawmakers to sign a so-called discharge petition and force the House to vote on a slate of GOP-proposed immigration "fixes." But though those efforts failed (Curbelo's group fell two votes short), House Speaker Paul Ryan agreed late last night to schedule two immigration-bill votes next week — in what the New York Times referred to as "something of a defeat" for Curbelo's camp.

As other political observers have already noted, the list of Republicans pushing the DACA vote includes almost uniformly GOP members in swing districts with large Latino populations — leading many observers to question whether Republicans such as Curbelo have launched the campaign in good faith. Regardless, the discharge petition/immigration deal battle has also upset the party's far right, and Curbelo has been the subject of a few fairly scathing, if not entirely good-faith, columns from Breitbart News. Many critics question whether the GOP's so-called moderates can overcome the party's hard-core-xenophobic wing to strike some kind of deal.

And, as others have noted, those "deals" aren't necessarily shining fixes. Curbelo has pitched protecting DACA while increasing funding for border-security measures or cracking down harder on undocumented immigrants. (As of last night, the House seemed most likely to hear a harsh bill from the Republican Party's immigration hawks, as well as what the Times called a "more moderate" proposal that's still being drafted.) Republicans have also floated the idea of tightening the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country. The proposals will likely create more immigration problems than they solve.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.