By Douglas Hanks

Justice Department lawyers say Miami-Dade had nothing to fear over losing federal transportation funds if the county didn't back President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown earlier this year, writing in a court filing that only security and crime-fighting federal aid would be withheld from "sanctuary" communities.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez cited the possibility of receiving billions of dollars from the Trump administration for an historic rail expansion in defending his January decision to change county policy and begin accepting federal detention requests for immigration offenders at local jails. The change came a day after Trump ordered federal agencies to withhold funds from so-called "sanctuary" communities that didn't comply with federal rules on immigration enforcement, including accepting the detention requests that Miami-Dade had denied under the Obama administration.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on Miami-Dade's behalf in a case over one of those detention requests, Justice lawyers emphasized the county faced a narrow threat of funding loss if it had opted to stick with the previous county policy under Trump.

Trump's Jan. 25 order "applies only [to] an applicant or recipient of certain grants administered by the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security," the lawyers wrote in the federal filing in a Circuit Court suit where a Haitian immigrant challenged the constitutionality of a county jail holding him for immigration authorities. "The Attorney General has now clarified that he does not interpret the challenged portion of the Executive Order as applying to grant programs administered by agencies other than DOJ and DHS."

While a Miami-Dade judge ruled for the immigrant, James LaCroix, in March, an appeals court stayed the decision as the county tries to get the decision overturned. Justice lawyers argued the case is moot, since LaCroix has already left the country. LaCroix was arrested on charges of driving with a suspended license, pleaded guilty and sentenced to time served. But jailers held him an extra 28 hours after federal immigration authorities issued a detention request for him, saying he was being sought for deportation.

Gimenez drew fury from immigration advocates on Jan. 26 when he lifted a 2013 county policy that had Miami-Dade declining all detainer requests. Those rules prompted the Obama administration to label Miami-Dade a "sanctuary" community in 2016, but Gimenez's switch -- endorsed by the County Commission in February -- ended that status. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Miami last week to announce Miami-Dade was in full compliance with immigration-enforcement rules, and eligible for federal justice grants.

In the debate leading up to the County Commission approving Gimenez's action on detention requests, the mayor cited the need for billions of dollars in federal aid to fully realize a plan to expand Metrorail countywide.

"When President Trump put out his order, I thought, you know, I think this gentleman is serious," Gimenez said on WPLG's "This Week in South Florida" on Feb. 4. "And by the way, we have $350 million in federal funding that we receive every year. And not only that, we are going to try and get hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars for our transit system. Which is completely discretionary federal money."

The Justice Department filing follows multiple statements and memos from Sessions and others narrowing the scope of Trump's original Jan. 25 order. Chicago, San Francisco and other cities are suing to block the federal government from denying funds based on immigration cooperation. When Justice certified Miami-Dade as in compliance with enforcement rules earlier this month, it approved the county to continue receiving a $500,000 crime-fighting grant.

Michael Hernández, communications director for Gimenez, confirmed Monday that the may expressed concern about a broad range of federal funds if Miami-Dade continued to defy the Trump administration the detention requests.

(c)2017 Miami Herald