The Peter Brown case, which we reported on last week, has put the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, and its relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in the local and national news. The ACLU has taken up Brown’s case, alleging that he was unlawfully detained and verbally mistreated in the custody of Monroe County Detention Center. Brown’s case, however — one of mistaken identity, wherein he was detained under (ultimately erroneous) order of Homeland Security — is an outlier.

More common are the cases of the 50 to 60 detainees being held as inmates of ICE in the custody of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. The arrangement for these people, who are held for immigration purposes, has existed between ICE and the sheriff’s office since the 1990s. The federal government pays Monroe County (not the sheriff’s office) $87 a day for each detainee.

The Census Bureau puts Monroe County’s immigrant population at 18.5 percent in 2017 and reports that nearly a quarter of our county’s households speak a language other than English at home. So, immigrants are an essential part of the fabric of the Monroe County population, even more so in Key West, where service and hospitality industry jobs are a primary economic driver — and are often filled by immigrants.

A group of Key Westers has taken a particular interest in the difficulties faced by immigrants in Monroe County. The Keys Immigrant Coalition (KIC) is a grassroots group that grew out of the Women’s March Florida Keys Chapter. Natalia Duke, a local community organizer, has been a driving force in advocacy for immigrants, women, people of color and the places where these groups intersect.

KIC serves as a sort of interlocutor between organizations that can provide services. Duke and other members of the coalition have held panels about immigrant justice and collaborated with organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Florida Immigration Coalition to learn about policy and educate the populace.

“We collaborated with other organizations and formed this new organization with that as its sole focus — what we can do to support and uplift our immigrant community,” said Duke. She and her collaborators have met with a local immigration attorney as well, to plan their next steps.

KIC recently was able to visit the immigration detention facility at the jail. “We were able to see the facilities which are part of the jail,” Duke said, “and we were able to speak to some of the detainees there. The officers we dealt with were helpful and informative during the walk-through.”

Right now, the focus of KIC is to improve the lives and situations of immigrants in the Keys.

“We are a small group,” she said, “and since we’re a new organization, we’re trying to see how we can be most effective. … We have limited resources, whereas in Miami they have larger nonprofits.” To begin with, KIC is collaborating to host legal clinics and informational panels.

“So if it’s bridging connections with other groups that should come down and offer support, then great,” said Duke. “If there is a way to set up weekly visitation, to offer some ease from isolation, and have contact with folks just as a humanitarian effort, then great. … We’ll also be raising money for lawyers’ fees, commissary fees at the jail, and so forth.”

“We’re trying to support and make sure they have resources to not live in fear and in the shadows,” she said. “People should know they have constitutional rights being on this land and in this country.” KIC is available at [email protected], 561-800-0182 or on Facebook at Keys Immigrant Coalition.

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