MIAMI — Mike Fernandez, the billionaire former Republican donor who left the party due to President Donald Trump, is fighting the administration’s hardline immigration policies with a frontline weapon: lawyers for the undocumented facing deportation.
As more illegal immigrants are swept up, detained or deported, Fernandez founded a fundraising group called the Immigration Partnership and Coalition to underwrite groups that provide legal counsel for detained illegal immigrants who don’t have felony records.
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Fernandez announced Wednesday he was giving $1 million of his own fortune to the effort, pledged $4 million more and was spending an additional $250,000 for the staff and infrastructure for the coalition, called IMPAC.
Fernandez, a Miami-area resident, said he’s hoping to get friends like Latin Grammy winners Gloria and Emilio Estefan and former Miami Heat basketball stars Alonzo Mourning, Shane Battier and Ray Allen to lend their celebrity to IMPAC. The coalition has a who’s who of local Republicans on board, including CNN contributor Ana Navarro.
“The simple goal is for every cent to go to defend the non-felon undocumented who are being targeted and arrested,” Fernandez said, calling the overwhelming number of illegal immigrants “hard-working people who help form the backbone of this country.”
Fernandez compared the increased pace of deportations under Trump to a sickness. And since Congress won’t pass comprehensive immigration reform that allows for legalization of millions of the undocumented, Fernandez said the next best treatment is to help them with legal services.
“You have someone who is the victim of a cancer and they’re being killed. So we have to stop that slaughter,” Fernandez said. “The next step is to channel those efforts into creating a movement that supports and guides the immigration reform that needs to occur.”
Fernandez, a penniless Cuban immigrant-turned healthcare tycoon, estimates he spent $3.4 million of his own money in the last presidential election — first to support former Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign and then to defeat Trump. A top fundraiser for and donor to Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, Fernandez said he left the GOP as a result of Trump’s rhetoric and policies concerning illegal immigration. There are an estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants nationwide.
In Miami-Dade County, which is Florida’s most-populous and has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the state, Fernandez’s positions on immigration align with many Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. But throughout Florida and the rest of the country, there’s less appetite among Republicans for allowing illegal immigrants to stay.
“Most of us realize immigration is a good thing for America. But the key here is the rule of law and the belief that illegal immigration is out of control,” said state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “We need to know who’s here in an era when we face such a big threat from terrorism. Are they self-sustaining or coming as dependents? And third, do they want to assimilate or do they want to disrupt or redefine America? Once we have the rule of law, there’s more room to talk about the benefits of immigration and who can stay.”
In the just-ended lawmaking session, Baxley supported a handful of Trump-era policies designed to crack down on illegal immigration and put an end to so-called “sanctuary cities.” The efforts failed, largely because the more-moderate state Senate had little appetite for the bills.
Nationally, some of Trump’s immigration policies have been halted by the courts, but illegal immigration has still slowed. Also, federal immigration officials appear to have stepped up enforcement and deportation of illegal immigrants, including those who were considered low priorities for removal. Many were allowed to stay in the country and get lawful work permits as long as they were crime free and checked in yearly with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
At Americans for Immigrant Justice, executive director Cheryl Little says such immigrants are the “low hanging fruit” for removal. As a result, her group tries to provide a lawyer and legal support for immigrants who appear at their yearly interview with ICE. She said the fear surrounding deportations has “never been higher in the immigrant community.”
“The good news is, thus far, we’ve succeeded in walking away from those interviews with our clients,” she said, adding that many have children legally born in the United States or who are victims of human trafficking. In addition to legal help, the money from Fernandez and IMPAC is being used to educate immigrants about unscrupulous immigration fraudsters known as “notarios.”
“This money is a lifeline to agencies such as ours,” she said. “It’s making all the difference.”
Little’s organization received $500,000 from Fernandez’s grant with another $500,000 earmarked for Catholic Legal Services.
Navarro, a Trump-bashing Republican CNN contributor who lives in Coral Gables along with Bush and Fernandez, said she was recently drafted on to IMPAC’s board and signed up because she respects Fernandez and trusts him.
“He could be on his yacht in Montenegro, but he’s doing this. He puts his money where his heart is,” she said. “Many of us are just offended by the rhetoric from the Trump administration.”
Joining Navarro and Fernandez on IMPAC’s board: Bruce Berkowitz (CEO of Fairhome Funds); Cesar Alvarez (Senior Chairman of Greenberg Traurig); Dr. Roger Medel (CEO of Mednax); Eduardo Padrón (Miami Dade College president); Paul Cejas (former U.S. ambassador to and chairman of PLC Investments); Alan Potamkin (co-CEO of Potamkin Companies); and Mario Murgado (chairman and CEO of Brickell Motors).
With so much firepower coming out of Miami, Fernandez said he hopes the movement spreads nationwide and that people get the message that the undocumented are no threat.
“They’re too busy plucking chicken feathers and cleaning rooms and picking tomatoes to be making bombs,” Fernandez said. “They come here for an opportunity. We shouldn’t be demonizing them. They make America great.”