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Tow Trucks Are Preying on Immigrants at South Florida ICE Check-in

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A long line of immigrants forms in the predawn hours every morning outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Miramar, and once a week, a small group of activists hands out coffee, water, and supplies to them. Today was Laurie Woodward Garcia's first day protesting with the group. She was sickened by the scene: Immigrants told her they'd begun lining up at 4 a.m. but were still waiting outdoors in the heat past noon.

"What I saw was horrifying," she tells New Times. "There was no water, no bathrooms for these people."

And then the tow trucks arrived. Garcia whipped out her phone and began filming: She says the truck operator, working with the company Broward Towing, was circling the property, hitching up cars outside the lots, waiting for immigrants to sprint out of line and yell for their cars to be released, and then asking for cash upfront to let the vehicles go.

"It's a tiny, tiny lot," she says, adding there were clearly not enough spaces to accommodate the large line of people. "Some side streets do say 'No Parking,' but generally people are supposed to get a warning. This guy just backed up, put the fork down, and started lifting cars. People started running. They were shouting, 'I can give you money!' So people would pay him and he'd just go on to the next car."

She said she personally witnessed two people hand the truck driver $50 each. In the clip, you can hear someone shout, "Get the fuck out of my way!" (Rico Fernando, who says he was the driver of the tow truck in the above video and is a Jamaican immigrant, called after publication. He contends tow truck drivers gave discounts to some of those who were towed. "We were just doing a job," he says. "We weren't taking advantage of anyone.")

Turns out someone tied to the federal government called the tow trucks after being cited repeatedly by the City of Miramar over code violations for the overstuffed lot.

After the city received complaints from residents about the flood of cars blocking streets and disrupting local construction projects, Miramar Police began hitting ICE and the federal agencies and contractors that own their lots with citations. But instead of fixing the parking logjam, someone decided to address the issue by hiring tow companies to simply haul away immigrants' cars at a moment's notice.

"Unfortunately, sometimes individuals are detained who drove to the facility, so that car is there for days or weeks," Miramar PD spokesperson Tania Rues says. "Our issue is with the property owner... This was just their way of fixing it."

Rues provided documents that show the ICE office has been issued two code-compliance citations for overgrown weeds and illegal parking. A separate, vacant lot adjacent to the property, owned by a large government contractor from California called Western Devcon Inc., was also issued violations for overgrown foliage and illegal parking.

"It is our understanding that additional signage with towing information has been posted by the facility managers and property staff and that visitors have been advised of parking areas," Rues says.

Spokespeople for ICE's Miami field offices say the decision to call tow trucks was made by either the United States General Services Administration, which manages the building, or the federal contractor that owns the property, a Cleveland-based firm called Boyd Watterson that specializes in leasing land to the GSA. ICE's Miami office says it didn't order the tows. ICE is, however, the only federal agency occupying that building.

A spokesperson for the GSA denied that his agency called the trucks.

Reached via phone, a manager with Broward Towing declined to comment or provide his name. But an anonymous employee later said he'd heard "from some people on the street" that the city had received a lot of complaints about the property and wanted the cars gone and that the police "were tired of sitting around and writing tickets all day."

This is far from the first time immigrants have complained about unfair treatment at this ICE facility: Activists have staged multiple protests against what they call "silent raids" occurring there, in which immigrants who show up for routine check-ins, who may have been here for years, are detained for no reason and placed into deportation proceedings.

Local activist Maria Asunción Bilbao told the Sun Sentinel last year that she's worked with multiple immigrants detained at the facility in so-called silent raids for no reason — she mentioned the cases of two Nicaraguan men detained there last year in separate incidents after each had arrived for a routine check-in. Neither man had a criminal record.

ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials across the nation have been accused of acting like a rogue, out-of-control deportation force since Donald Trump took office: CBP agents infamously conducted raids on two Greyhound buses in Florida this year, and ICE arrests in Florida jumped by 75 percent from 2016 to 2017. (Deportations still have not reached the historical peak of the Obama administration, but immigrant activists weren't happy with him either.)

Now, in addition to worrying that their loved ones might never return from a visit to the Miramar facility, Garcia's video warns they also might lose their cars.

"Unfortunately, in my city, the city of Miramar, we have a tow driver who is extorting people for money when they're coming to immigration," she said, adding later: "This is literally a robbery-in-progress right now. These people have enough to contend with. And now this?"

This post has been updated to include comments from ICE and GSA spokespeople.

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