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South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard Says City Won’t Cooperate With Immigration Enforcement

South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard in his lush yard.
South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard in his lush yard.
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On a cold February day in 2013, Warren Papove deplaned in Vancouver with 65 cents to his name.

After living in South Miami for ten years without a criminal conviction, Papove — a homeless handyman who did odd jobs for Commissioner Bob Welsh — had been reported to immigration officials and rounded up by ICE. Six months into his lockup at the Krome Detention Center, Papove was deported to his native Canada in the middle of winter without so much as a jacket to keep himself warm.

The saga was part of what South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard now calls "a history that I never wish to see repeated." On the heels of Miami-Dade commissioners' controversial vote to comply with ICE requests, Stoddard is asking South Miami commissioners to pass a resolution tonight that would oppose any such requests of the city's police force. If asked to assist with immigration investigations or the arrest of a low-level undocumented person, Stoddard's resolution says, South Miami Police will decline and refer the requester to the Miami-Dade Police Department instead.

"If ICE seeks local muscle and firepower to enforce immigration law, it can find a ready partner in the county, where the mayor appears more pliant on such matters than myself," Stoddard writes in a letter that clearly takes aim at Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Stoddard, South Miami's mayor since 2010, says residents should be able to trust police to keep them safe without worrying that any encounter with a cop might lead to deportation.

"What I really don't want to see ever again is where ICE says, 'Hey, we want this person for whatever reason,' and police go in and arrest someone and hand them over," Stoddard tells New Times. "If they want to go over to some restaurant and screen the kitchen staff for immigration papers, we're not going to be the muscle."

It wasn't long ago that the South Miami Police Department enjoyed a cozy relationship with ICE. As recently as six or seven years ago, under a different administration and police chief, Stoddard says, South Miami Police would regularly team up with immigration enforcement to round up undocumented immigrants. On several occasions, ICE was invited to hang out at DUI checkpoints, which led to the arrest of anyone without papers.

"Sometimes ICE has asked our police to enter a resident's house and arrest an individual, at gunpoint if necessary, and hand him or her over to ICE," Stoddard wrote in a February 16 letter. "Such actions, while representing interagency cooperation, creates mistrust of our police department by city residents."

Stoddard cited Papove's case as one example of police behavior that should be left in the past. In another instance, he said South Miami Police had accused an unnamed permanent resident with a green card of immigration fraud, later arrested the man, and handed him over to ICE to be deported. After he was detained in Palm Beach County, the court dismissed the charge, "but only after enormous emotional and financial cost to the individual, the family, and the community."

If Stoddard's resolution is passed by South Miami commissioners, city police would decline to participate in joint operations with any agency conducting immigration-enforcement operations. Though officers would still make arrests of lawbreakers and assist in the apprehension of dangerous fugitives within city limits, it would be against policy for an officer to ask about immigration status or enforce national immigration policy in the normal course of duty.

The policy wouldn't apply to anyone arrested on suspicion of a crime, though, meaning someone who was booked for a minor charge, such as driving with a suspended license, would still be subject to county policies about detention holds for immigration violations.

Stoddard says that there's no legal requirement for cities to participate in federal immigration investigations and that doing so makes residents hesitant to call police for help when they need it, which could make the city less safe.

"Allowing our police department to be co-opted as the armed hand of a politically divisive national movement would be antithetical to our heritage as a nation of immigrants, our unity as a community, our neighborly values, and ultimately our personal safety," Stoddard's letter says.

Miami-Dade court records show that between 2009 and 2010, Papove was charged with two misdemeanors and once for felony possession of cocaine; he was not convicted in any of those cases.

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