CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Mike Fernandez is no stranger to crossing party lines. A major Republican donor and influencer, he joined forces with the Obama administration on their new Cuba policy. But when the GOP nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, the Cuban American billionaire officially changed his affiliation to Independent.
Fernandez could not abide by then-candidate Trump's immigration rhetoric, and now he won't play nice with the president's immigration policies. So he's made it his mission to help as many undocumented families as he can.
Fernandez recently put $1 million of his own funds, and has pledged $4 million more, to spearhead the Immigration Partnership & Coalition Fund. IMPAC Fund "will be focused towards fundraising for the defense of non-felon undocumented residents to protect families," states the organization's mission statement. "We recognize the importance that immigrants represent to the fiber of our community and its economic well-being."
The fund will give money to organizations that provide legal services to immigrants. He's enlisted some powerful support, including Miami Heat player Alonzo Mourning, renowned Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón and Emilio and Gloria Estefan.
We recently sat down with Fernandez at his palatial estate to ask what drives his work for immigrants and immigration reform. Before a helicopter landed to whisk him away to his next meeting, we spoke about why he's created a space for political and civic activism by putting his money behind his convictions. Below is a condensed version of our interview.
You're an extremely successful businessman by every metric. Why have you made immigration your cause?
When I'm asked what's my magic formula for building successful companies, I tell them, 'I live in a city where we have a crystal ball to see where then country is going.' So I focus on the Hispanic population and I build my businesses looking to where America is going to be.
A few years ago, the National Association of Attorney Generals was meeting in Miami and I was asked to host an event for them in my house. I was happy to do it on the condition that I could show the three hundred guests a short video called The New American Reality - and then tell them a story.
I welcomed them to tour the grounds saying, 'I have five children and five dogs, so please feel free to roam around, there are no secret doors.' After they watched the video came my time to speak. I said to them, 'You honor me by being here and I'm afraid to tell you your positions and jobs are in jeopardy today. Your jobs are in jeopardy today because I know someone who used to clean monkey cages at a hospital, he would clean the feces, change their wood chips at the bottom of their cages, then he had to walk the chimpanzees for their daily exercise.'
They all started looking at each other and I continued. 'That same person got a job at the VA cleaning out the spittoons and beds in the tuberculosis ward and then came to Miami and started working as a door-to-door salesman. Nine out of ten times nobody would ever listen to him. But this guy, he never gave up, because he believed in fairness and that there is no going back.'
'And I'm telling you this because you're at his house today, I happen to be that kid. And if you want to get elected tomorrow, don't look at the migrant worker as somebody who's picking tomatoes - look at them as somebody who's going to vote you into or out of office because they have kids and those kids will remember.'
Today one out of four kids has a Spanish surname. In a few years, it will be half and in a few years after that, it will be two thirds. We are not trying to replace anybody. But we're not a minus to this country, we're a plus. We're not the brake to the American engine, we're a piston to speed up that motor that we call the American enterprise. That piston is very strong and it cannot be removed.
One of the jobs I had in high school was at the Museum of Natural History on the weekends. Next to Teddy Roosevelt, there is a plaque that says "Keep your eyes on the stars but keep your feet firmly on the ground." Dreaming is not enough, talking is not enough, you need to take action.
"We are not a minus to this country, we're a plus."
What is the purpose of living the only life God gives you and not be relevant? If we see an injustice we should speak up. I'm not running for office. I don't need anything from anybody, I don't want my name on a stone after I pass; I just want my kids see a father who is doing the right thing. And my kids are all really great kids who are doing the right thing because they see it at home.
Cuban Americans often get accused of not caring about immigration because they have benefited from an easy path to citizenship in this country. What fuels your advocacy?
Part of the reason is that we live in a bubble in Miami. But I feel obligated in a sense because of something that bothers me: Most Cuban Americans, who are here as immigrants, have very little empathy, and if they do, they don't show it towards others that have less than they do.
We're 'different' for whatever reason, Cubans are 'exceptional' at everything. Well, we should be less 'exceptional' and just accept we got here because we received 100 dollars a month, we were given access to the system, we were given residency and then we were given access to citizenship.
It's very different than a mother who lives in Honduras whose husband has been murdered by a gang and is left with an eleven-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son that the gangs are trying to recruit for a life of violence and death. That mother has a choice. Do I stay here and allow them to take my family away and endanger the life of my children? Do I go south? Nicaragua's communist, Venezuela is communist, Colombia is beautiful but in turmoil. Or do I go north, where everybody seems to have a job? So they go north.
They expose themselves to tremendous danger, to violence, rape, and robberies and they make it here. And when they make it here they can be deported If they drive in Florida without a license. Forty percent of undocumented immigrants have driver's licenses because most states recognize the need for a driver's license a to be productive. But Florida has refused to do so. People get arrested because they have a broken tail light and they're driving without a license.
How much do we spend in detaining them, feeding them, transporting them, calling ICE and deporting them? And what do they want? They want the same as the Italians, the Irish and the Germans wanted. They wanted a better life.
And what made this country is not a unique ethnic group or religion. It's not a country that uses its incredible military power to subdue them. It's a country made of diversity. It's like two metals that you put together to come up with a stronger steel, and that's where our advantage comes from.
I got stopped for speeding in northern New Mexico. I'm heading to my house in Park City (Utah) and the guy looks at my driver's license and says, 'Where have you done time?'
I said 'Well, I did 9 years with my ex-wife, but I'm now free now.' He didn't crack a smile. Cubans forget than in the eyes of most we are all the same.
What would you say to people who have no compassion for Latino undocumented immigrants?
I would tell them a joke. Did you hear the one about the Native Americans sitting by the rock at Plymouth? One says "Here come the ships" and the other guy says, "Oh no! The immigrants are coming!" Who is not an immigrant in this country?
Every generation goes through this process but we also have to remember as we defend our position on immigration that this is nothing new.
In the 1840s the U.S. had a policy of not accepting Catholics. In 1889 for 60 years we did not let the Chinese come into this country. We only allowed those that worked on the railroad to come in legally and I can go on and on through periods in history, and that pendulum swings one way and then comes back. But it requires people to speak up without being worried about how they're perceived. You do the right thing and people support you.
Can you speak to the basic economics at play around immigration?
Fifty three percent of all IPOs over a billion dollars have a Latino as one of the top three guys. We represent a growth in the population both in the economic side as well as the social side and a lot of people who are less informed believe that we are not integrating.
In Florida there's 388,000 companies that employ immigrants with over 500,000 jobs that they created mostly for non-immigrants. In my last company we gave back over 100 million dollars to the rank and file employees. The receptionists, the drivers, the file clerks and so on, that is the contribution that one immigrant can make to this country.
Thirty billion dollars in taxes were paid last year by immigrants in Florida. Imagine those that are getting paid under the table—that number could be ten times that amount. Look at the fees generated from driver's licenses alone; I bet you it's between thirty and fifty million a year.
But the most important part is the productivity. We're not going to do the jobs that they're doing. They tried it in Georgia, they tried it in Alabama. The crops in Georgia rotted in the fields. The government tried to bring the prisoners in to do it, that lasted one day. And it's not only that. Who takes care of our elderly? There are a lot of jobs that people won't do in this country that an immigrant does.
What can we do to combat the illogical spread of misinformation about immigrant communities? What's the real story?
It's fear and you cannot fight emotion with logic. When I was in the Army, it surprised me the number of non-U.S. citizens in basic training with me: Koreans, Mexicans, Cubans.
They all said, 'My parents came here and I want to give back.' Or 'This is a path to citizenship.' Today, in an all volunteer Army, you don't see the middle class, you certainly don't see Trump's kids volunteering or Donald Trump. He got six deferments for bone spurs...The U.S. has the lowest percentage of passports of any developed nation at 30 percent. They're afraid that they're losing something. That immigrants are doing the job that they won't do, making them look bad.
There's a segment of us that forgets that a minimum wage job is an entry job, a conveyor belt that that takes you somewhere. It's not the end of something, its the beginning of something. Not everybody is going to be a head of a company, but at least they're in play.
There are a lot of us who are born here who are threatened by the fact that this group will do whatever it takes to feed their family, whatever it takes to send money back home and they're extremely grateful for what they have and they love this country.
Nobody appreciates something as much as those who have lost it. People who have lost their safety, their liberty, people that have experienced violence and rape, they appreciate waking up in the morning and having something as simple as turning on a faucet and getting hot water. We all take it for granted.
What do you say to immigrants who are living in fear of getting rounded up and deported by ICE?
People that hate are bullies. Trump is a bully and people that have that mindset of picking on us are bullies. But bullies are chickens also, they're afraid.
I would say get organized. We need to become one voice and be vocal and participate.
We're not going anywhere and what's being done has to stop and all of us together have to make it stop. And sometimes it's one or two voices that make a difference. I'm just one little Cuban refugee that is pretty average at everything that I do. But I believe that the white hats win. The good guys do win. And we're the good guys in this fight. They are not.