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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
March 2017

Immigrants fear that the worst is yet to come

SPix_EleazarMelendez_3-17itting in the passenger seat of a government-issued SUV as we wait to cross the corner of 11th Street and N. Miami Avenue, it’s suddenly taking every ounce of my willpower not to fall asleep.

The time is 3:30 a.m., which means it’s been 23 hours since I woke up. I’ve been accompanying the police as they raid various bars and nightclubs across town. And while I’ve witnessed some interesting moments, the adrenaline that’s kept me going until now feels nearly tapped out.

Perhaps sensing my grogginess, perhaps because he can, the driver of the SUV honks the horn to get across and jolts me back to life. A few seconds later, we’re climbing the sidewalk to park on an uneven, graveled swale. I jump out as if possessed, ready to take on this last bar check and go home. The driver, who happens to be the city’s director of code compliance and stands maybe a foot shorter than I, measures his exit from the SUV more carefully.

The thumping bass reverberating down the street is exactly why we’re here. Half an hour earlier, we’d stood on a balcony on the 59th story of a downtown condo building more than two blocks away. A father with a crying newborn had called my cell phone to express dismay that his ten-day-old couldn’t get to sleep with music so loud coming from the clubs that it was shaking his windows. Standing on the balcony, the music was indeed loud -- so loud I clearly heard and started singing the words to the 2009 David Guetta club-banger the DJ had picked at Heart Nightclub, hundreds of feet away.

The city’s rules prohibit any noise after 11:00 p.m. that is loud enough to be “plainly audible” more than 100 feet away.

Noise, as expected, is a commonplace issue for downtown and Brickell, and it was keeping me up that night. The call to my cell phone would be followed up with more than a dozen e-mails in the morning from angry residents. (As an aide to Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, it’s my job sometimes to deal with these issues.)

But for many other nights after that, I was much more troubled by what I saw and experienced at some of the other clubs and bars I went to that night, places just two or three miles from the glamorous clientele and exhilarating beats of these downtown mega-clubs, where it seemed impossible for folks to just take a load off and relax.

At El Aguila, a restaurant and bar in Allapattah that turns into a pool hall and hangout after hours, most of the clientele had gone into a frenzy and bolted for the doors at the sight of two police officers coming in. Except for one exceptionally athletic man who somehow vaulted over the Dumpsters by the back door at the sight of the cops and never looked back, everyone else was penned in by the cordon of police, code inspectors, and fire marshals.

Officers patted down each person and transmitted their personal info back to the command station. No drugs were found, and no missed court dates or arrest warrants popped up. Instead, every single man and woman answered the same -- that with the specter of Donald Trump as president, and with county Mayor Carlos Gimenez having announced a move to comply with requests from the federal government, they were terrified that they could be hunted down and deported at any moment.

An immigrant city is a striver’s city. And striving doesn’t always look pretty. At El Aguila, some of the bar patrons hid under furniture and inside walk-in closets, afraid that immigration had just walked in to snatch them from their favorite watering hole.

Moving through the establishment, a fire inspector found that a storage room in the back had been converted into living quarters. The manager later told us that the money she and her husband made from handling the bar for an absentee landlord was so meager that they had no choice but to live in that back room, where a botched plumbing job the code inspector marked up was letting the smell of sewage seep in.

At Sandra’s Café in the less glamorous part of Wynwood, we caught Honduran immigrants throwing back six packs of Modelo Especial while watching DVDs of Central American movies and chowing down on pupusas. While there was no running away, perhaps because of the extremely crowded nature of the place or perhaps because the raid took place earlier in the night, before everybody could get soused with liquid courage, the atmosphere was no less tense.

The bar owner nearly broke down as she pulled out her operating permits for the police to verify.

Word would get out that there’d been a raid on the spot, and no one would understand that it was just to check on licenses, she told us. Her business would now thin out for weeks because no one would dare show up somewhere where immigration officers might or might not have dropped in, she said.

Relieved that she was only getting a warning for failing to file her business tax receipt with the city’s finance department, she still somewhat panicked after walking out of a back office to see that indeed, the sudden action had immediately thinned her clientele.

Just as remembering a pleasant experience is like living it once more, dreading the uncertain can be as bad, and sometimes worse, than actually going through it.

And that’s where every immigrant is right now in this city and country: living with the expectation that the worst is yet to come.

On the corner of 11th Street a few hours after Sandra’s, El Aguila, and several other nightspots where similar scenes played out, I and the other representatives of the city got to talk with the managers of Heart, and noted that they lowered the music before we left.

The next afternoon when I woke up, I had a few e-mails from the bunch of complaints noting that the music had gone down around the time we had showed up at the club’s door, but that it apparently went back up to a crescendo around 6:00 a.m.

By then I was deep in slumber. But it was not a pleasant sleep by any means. Just before finally collapsing in bed, I had thought back to the terrified people I had encountered that night, and wondered what it would be like to know you might be awakened by the knock on the door of an immigration agent, kicked out of this country of freedom and opportunity. Dark dreams followed.

 

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