It’s strange that Riviera Beach has become a focal point of discord over the handling of undocumented residents.
Of all the jurisdictions in Palm Beach County, you wouldn’t expect that the one led by the area’s most well-known civil rights advocate is where the most pressing civil rights issue of our time is being handled in the harshest way.
But it’s true. Unlike the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the West Palm Beach Police Department, the Riviera Beach Police Department has been turning non-criminal service calls into immigration busts. Residents encountered by police in some instances have been asked to prove their citizenship, and if they’re unable to provide proof, they’re turned over to federal immigration officers, locked up and put on a path to deportation.
But when you talk to this about the mayor, Bishop Thomas Masters, here’s what he says:
“I feel that anyone who calls the police for help shouldn’t be the one that ends up getting in trouble,” Masters said.
But Masters is at a loss to explain why that’s happening in his city, and he seems to be more wrapped up in his own lack of documentation issues, after a speeding ticket earlier this month showed he was driving without a valid license.
“It was just an untimely situation,” he said.
Masters isn’t only a local civil rights leader. He was a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer, where he and other delegates advocated handling undocumented residents in a very different way.
“We will promote best practices among local law enforcement, in terms of how they collaborate with federal authorities, to ensure that they maintain and build trust between local law enforcement and the communities they serve,” the Democratic Party’s convention document said.
But here’s what has happened recently in Riviera Beach.
Police arrived at the scene of a traffic accident earlier this month to discover that one of the vehicles involved was driven by Gloriana Gonzalez, a 43-year-old Venezuelan woman who has a masters degree and has been living crime-free in America after her visa expired.
City police summoned Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who locked Gonzalez in a detention center in Pompano Beach, putting her on a path to deportation.
On another call two months earlier, Riviera Beach Police responded to a woman who said that her clothes had been stolen from a laundromat. When police arrived, they noticed the woman had a boyfriend, Milton Perez, 24. He was asked about his citizenship, and found to be undocumented Guatemalan laborer with no criminal history.
Once again, police called ICE and he was locked up.
Deportations like this used to happen with regularity during the first years of the Obama Administration. In 2013, a record number of more than 438,000 unauthorized immigrants across the country were deported. And these numbers include tens of thousands of undocumented parents who were separated from their American citizen children.
But late that year, President Obama issued a directive to ease deportations of parents. And in an executive action the following year, ICE was instructed to prioritize deportations for criminals, and sparing undocumented residents from the fear of deportation if they’ve lived at least five years in this country and hadn’t committed any crimes while here.
Last year’s presidential election put immigration in the spotlight with then-candidate Donald Trump railing against “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants. And after winning the election, President Trump signed an executive order that would strip federal funding to any city that didn’t fully cooperate with federal officials in singling out undocumented residents for deportation.
But that directive was quickly found to be unconstitutional in court challenges, and meanwhile, cities across America defiantly stood for the principal that local law enforcement officers better served their citizens when they weren’t acting as an arm of federal immigration control.
One of those cities was West Palm Beach, which passed a “Welcoming City” resolution that proclaimed that city officers would not assist immigration officers in rounding up undocumented residents.
“We want to make sure people know that they are safe in West Palm Beach and this is a place where we want them to be,” West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said about the resolution.
By contrast, Riviera Beach’s mayor has been silent — and confused.
“Is Riviera Beach a sanctuary city?” I asked Mayor Masters.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not a strong mayor. That’s the city manager’s situation. It’s up to him. I’ve asked him to look into it.”
Immigrant rights attorney Aileen Josephs says a lot is at stake here.
“Riviera Beach, according to the census, is now home to about 34,244 Hispanics,” she said. “Many of them I suppose are undocumented and it’s very important to promote the trust between the immigrant community and law enforcement.”
Josephs said she has a meeting with the city’s police chief next week. Meanwhile, Masters said he has asked the city manager to get involved.
“We need to see if there needs to be some changes or modifications,” he said.
It needs to be fixed, Josephs said.
“People are saying, don’t call the police, they are against us,” she said.