For Maria Bilbao and other immigrant activists who had pressured ICE to cut back its operations in the wake of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Thursday was a victory, though not a foregone one. For more than a week, the agency insisted on continuing face-to-face meetings with immigrants despite advisories from public health experts that all sizable gatherings should be banned. Hundreds of people, many of them elderly, were forced to stand in tight lines snaking in front of the Broward ICE facility in Miramar, putting them at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
Outraged, Bilbao began to look for allies. She reached out to news outlets, including New Times, to draw attention to what was happening in Miramar. Last Friday, March 13, Bilbao and other activists with the Miramar Circle of Protection held a press conference in front of the ICE facility and called on the agency to suspend all daily check-ins. Within days, they'd call out Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, who recently mounted a failed run as a Democratic presidential candidate.
Over the weekend, Messam declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19. The emergency order, among other things, included guidance for local businesses and a list of postponed city events. But it made no mention of immigrants or the ICE facility.
Bilbao and other activists say they felt betrayed. Bilbao's disappointment with Messam's emergency order was so strong she took to social media to criticize him.
"This man is a joke, spineless and also he is... irresponsible. Mayor Wayne Messam declared a state of emergency in the City of Miramar and not a thing about ICE operating the brewing pot of disease in the city! #coronavirus," Bilbao wrote Tuesday.
In another post, she accused the mayor of political opportunism. "So the only time that Wayne M. Messam showed interest to join our Miramar Circle of Protection was when he was desperately trying to get media attention because he was running for president," Bilbao wrote.
To prove her point, she uploaded screenshots of Facebook messages Messam sent her last year in the days leading up to the June Democratic debates held in Miami. In the messages, Messam appeared extremely interested in joining Bilbao and other activists in front of the ICE facility and offered to bring "national attention" to the situation.
During Messam's short-lived campaign, the Miramar mayor did not qualify for a single televised debate and dropped out in relative obscurity a few months after announcing his bid. However, during that time, Bilbao says, he billed himself as a champion for immigrants.
"If you're really a champion for immigrants, why not come with us to the facility? He never did once. He only showed interest before the debates here when he wanted attention from the press," Bilbao says.
Reached for comment, Messam told New Times he couldn't discuss matters related to his presidential run. But he defended his actions as mayor by saying the ICE facility was not mentioned in his emergency order because it falls under the authority of the federal government and is beyond the purview of local laws. Nevertheless, he said, the city has made a number of improvements to the ICE facility, including new parking lots and shade structures to protect immigrants from the sun while they wait in line.
"My interest in the humane treatment of undocumented immigrants is not connected to my past presidential run," Messam wrote in an email to New Times. "Any notion that this issue is not important to me is false."
Activists say this isn't the first time Messam has claimed to be powerless when it comes to the ICE facility in his city. Another member of the Miramar Circle of Protection member, Laurie Woodward Garcia, says they've been back and forth with Messam about the facility for the past two and a half years, although little has changed.
"Messam has done nothing to help immigrants. He's never once handed out a bottle of water at the facility; he's never spoken about it on social media. All the while, this is going on in his own backyard," she says. "I can't imagine what we could have accomplished by now if we had the platform and draw that he does, what kind of abuse we could've highlighted."
Bud Conlin, president of Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, also had some choice words for Messam on Facebook:
Bilbao points to U.S. Reps. Alcee Hastings and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and state Rep. Cindy Polo as elected officials in South Florida who have helped draw attention to the Miramar ICE facility. Earlier this week, Polo released a statement condemning ICE for allowing its facilities to remain open during the COVID-19 outbreak.
"On any day, many gather and wait in line for hours to comply with the law, but there should be alternative measures put in place to slow the spread of this dangerous virus," Polo wrote.