Driving onto a dead-end road that leads to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Miramar is likely the only way to notice the hundreds of immigrants lining up before dawn.
They come for routine check-ins while their immigration cases are pending and wait in lines that snake out of the building and across the parking lot. Some are lucky enough to stand and wait beneath small trees lining the front gates; others have no cover in the unforgiving summer sun. City officials and lawmakers have pleaded with federal officials to help make conditions more tolerable — better access to water fountains and bathrooms, and extra shade and parking.
“We document, we Facebook, we try to bear witness to shed a light on this,” said Laurie Woodward Garcia, a Miramar resident who condemns the conditions immigrants face.
“This human tragedy, this human suffering should never happen in the city known as the city of ‘Beauty and Progress,’” Woodward Garcia said, referring to the Miramar motto.
City officials agree.
“It’s much more than just a violation, it’s humanity. Nobody can sit there and just observe what we see happening there,” said Miramar Interim City Manager Vernon Hargray. “The commission will take some action, whatever’s necessary, but we will not live with this.”
In February, Miramar commissioners unanimously passed a resolution condemning conditions at the ICE building in their city. City officials say they’ve noticed increased volumes of immigrants appearing at the Miramar facility in recent years. It is the only available ICE site in South Florida where immigrants report for check-ins — the next closest is in Orlando.
ICE says the facility gets an average of 225 to 300 people a day between those with appointments and walk-ins at the building on the busy Southwest 145th Avenue corridor between Pembroke Pines and Miramar. It’s not far from the Pembroke Gardens hotspot of shops, restaurants and bars, and corporate offices belonging to Royal Caribbean, several colleges such as Florida International University and the FBI.
In the past year, several groups of immigration advocates, including United We Dream and Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, have gathered for a weekly “circle of protection” on the south side of Southwest 29th Street where the federal building lies. These sympathizers say they offer water, coffee, snacks and a hotline to allow immigrants a chance to give anonymous testimonials of the trying conditions they face.
The activists serve as monitors and also offer help. They’ve paid bus fares for people and helped seniors shuffling toward the ICE building in walkers from about a block away. There are accounts of mothers who are not allowed to bring formula for their babies inside the federal building, they say. The agency, however, says it permits baby formula.
ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias says concerns raised by advocates and elected officials are not being ignored. The agency is working “to upgrade conditions at the Miramar sub-office.”
“Restroom signs have been made and posted. The signs will inform the visitors that there are restrooms available in the building and to contact security officers to enter the building,” Yglesias said, in a statement. “Even though there are drinking fountains available in the lobby area of the Miramar office, ICE is exploring the possibility of adding additional drinking fountains outside of the building.”
The agency says visitor parking is not its responsibility, but it is working to add more spots for patrons. Miramar code enforcement officials have twice cited the ICE property for patrons’ illegal parking and the destroyed grass on the swales, records show.
During a recent “circle of protection” gathering, a woman waited with a stranger’s purse that contained water bottles and a baby bottle. The bag was not allowed inside the federal building, she said, so the stranger entrusted her with it.
She declined to offer her name, but said she is seeking asylum from the violence in her native Honduras. While waiting in line, she shared a sight that nearly moved her to tears.
“I saw a father and I got the urge to cry,” she said. “His baby girl looked sickened with fatigue and heat; she was crying.”
Many of the immigrants are reluctant to criticize the government, but do say they arrive before sunrise and have long waits of five to six hours.
It’s an “inhumane” situation that needs to be rectified, said Miramar Vice Mayor Yvette Colbourne, who stopped by during a recent “circle of protection.”
“We don’t think it’s right for the residents or for human beings to have to be treated this way and have to withstand standing in this area outside, regardless of whether it’s raining or sun,” she said. “We have elderly, we have young kids and it’s certainly happening here in our city, and it’s something we do not support this kind of treatment of people.”
After the city passed its resolution in February, U.S. Reps. Alcee Hastings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson, and. U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, drafted letters to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and General Services Administration hoping to find relief for immigrants appearing at the Miramar location.
“These issues have been going on for several months and we have yet to see discernible changes on the ground,” Hastings said, in a statement. “I, along with other Members of the Florida Delegation, have been tirelessly working with local and federal officials to make sure that people standing in line for hours have shelter and access to water and restrooms.”
Still, activists are pressing the city to do more. These advocates want to drive ICE out and want the city to put even more pressure on the feds. And some are upset that commissioners this month granted a developer building a corporate office down the street from the ICE building permission to carve out an exit and entryway onto a residential street away from the federal facility. The developer cited safety concerns over heavy pedestrian traffic around the ICE building.
Immigration advocates say city leaders and the developer are just turning a blind eye to the problem.
“This place just shouldn’t exist,” said Maria Asuncion Bilbao, a local organizer for United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group. The North Miami Beach woman was undocumented for 17 years and just recently attained her legal status, she said, but she wasn’t required to check in at the Miramar site.
“The city has the power to shut down this facility,” she said. “They’re not doing enough. They can do more.
“Sometimes I wonder whether they are just waiting for a tragedy, someone who dies of a heat stroke, a dehydrated baby,” Bilbao said. “Do we have to wait for that to happen to act?”