Miami-Dade Blew $12.5 Million Holding ICE Detainees in 2017, Rights Groups Say

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez Miami-Dade County Mayor's Office

Holding federal immigration detainees in local jails has been ruled unconstitutional. The practice tears apart families, jails people who may never have been convicted of crimes, and can even lead to locking up the wrong people. For some reason, Miami-Dade County insists on detaining immigrants in local jails on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's behalf in order to avoid being called a "sanctuary" county, even though, as the Miami Herald has reported, the county hasn't received any meaningful benefit from the Trump administration for doing so.

Instead, according to a report multiple local civil rights groups released yesterday, Miami-Dade's infamous anti-sanctuary policies have cost taxpayers $12.5 million in 2017 and are on pace to cost the county $13.6 million annually. The data, compiled by the activist organizations the Community Justice Project, Florida Immigrant Coalition, and WeCount!, was first reported by CBS Miami this past Sunday.

Despite Mayor Carlos Gimenez's claim that complying with Donald Trump's sanctuary-city crackdown was necessary to save public money, the civil rights groups argue the ICE detention program is actually costing taxpayers way more than the mayor estimated last year.

"After the implementation of the Gimenez-Trump policy, the average daily population of individuals in custody in Miami-Dade County increased for the first time in eight years despite steadily decreasing arrest rates," the report says. "By honoring immigration detainers, the County... dramatically increased the time [detainees]  spend in custody, for multiple reasons."

According to the report, arrestees with ICE detainers are far less likely to post bond. (A previous, 2013 report about the county's ICE detention practices made the same point.) Thus, immigrant defendants with ICE detainers spend an average of 89.6 days in jail, while nonimmigrant arrestees typically spend 33.4 days in custody. The report warns that those 56.2 extra days are bleeding county coffers dry.

In January 2017, Trump issued an executive order threatening to withhold federal money from so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to hold ICE detainees in local jails. (When immigrants are arrested, nonsanctuary municipalities check their data to see if ICE has issued a "detainer" requesting that the person be held in jail until ICE can pick them up and deport them.) Though most legal analysts assumed the president's order was an empty threat (this remains true a year later), Gimenez issued an order to comply with Trump's ICE detention policy the very next day, making national headlines and becoming the first big-city mayor to do so.

Miami-Dade had previously honored ICE detainers but then passed a resolution outlawing the practice in 2013. Gimenez's order reversed that decision — and led to mass protests outside county hall, including a hunger strike. But the next month, the Miami-Dade County Commission made Gimenez's order permanent.

Since then, numerous media outlets, including the Herald, have reported that Gimenez and the county do not seem to have gained any financial benefit from the decision. Despite the fact that Attorney General Jeff Sessions flew to Miami to congratulate Gimenez on the decision, the Herald noted last month that the county hasn't received any sort of preferential treatment or new funding from the federal government since.

Instead, the Herald reported last month, county jails turned over 436 people to ICE in 2017 — more than one person per day. ICE sent the county 966 detainer "requests" last year, but 201 people remained in jail awaiting other criminal charges, and 329 other detainers were either canceled or forgotten and the arrestee was released. The Herald estimated that if each of the 436 detainees turned over to ICE had been held for a full 48 hours, they would have cost the county $175,000 last year. (Some other decisions obviously cost the county needless money: The American Civil Liberties Union sued the county in 2017 for illegally holding a U.S. citizen overnight in jail by mistake.)

But the new report warns that the total cost of the detention program for taxpayers has been far higher because immigrant detainees neglect to post bond in order to avoid being transferred to ICE custody:

Rather than focusing simply on the cost of detention during the 48-hour hold, the analysis must be expanded to account for the true cost of prolonged stays in local custody. By multiplying the estimated additional time in local custody by the number of detainers issued and average daily cost of incarceration in Miami-Dade, we are able to assess the fiscal impact on the County. The result: Miami-Dade taxpayers have footed the bill for approximately $12.5 million in additional jailing costs between Jan. 27 and Dec. 28, 2017. Extrapolated over a year, assisting ICE could end up costing the county over $13.6 million annually.
Elsewhere, the report raises serious questions about the efficacy of the ICE detention program: According to the civil rights groups, 98 percent of the people released from Miami-Dade County to ICE were first-time offenders. (The Herald reported that only 100 of those sent to ICE were accused of violent crimes; the others were picked up on either traffic violations, misdemeanor arrests, or nonviolent drug charges.)

"ICE’s decision to pick up a detainee does not appear to correlate with the severity of the local criminal charge or purported public safety assessment," the report reads. "One detainee was turned over to ICE after the county court sentenced him to one day of probation. Rather than serving that probation, he was put into the deportation pipeline. Others have been turned over for simply not being able to obtain a driver’s license."

The report questions how deporting nonviolent, first-time offenders could possibly benefit civil society. In addition to using money that could be put toward affordable-housing initiatives, transportation upgrades, or climate-change protection, the county is spending the money on jails. In the meantime, local immigrants now say they're afraid to speak to the police or participate in civil society.

"The indirect impact of this policy and the climate created by the Trump administration has been felt beyond the County coffers," the report warns. "Providers have noted a 'chilling effect on Hispanic participation in health-care programs,' increased stress and mental health issues in immigrant patients, fearfulness around filing for court protection in domestic abuse cases, and a general fear of local law enforcement since the policy took hold. Lawyers also report that witnesses are failing to appear for depositions and court hearings out of fear, impairing the administration of justice and due process."
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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.