For Immediate release: Dec 01, 2022

Legal advocates file lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s migrant relocation program

MIAMI — Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Leontire & Associates, P.C. and the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) of Harvard Law School filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jared W. Perdue, Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, in their official capacities and on behalf of nonprofit immigrant rights organizations, the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice) and Hope Community Center (HCC). The lawsuit challenges Section 185 of Florida’s 2022 General Appropriations Act (House Bill 5001).

Earlier this year, Gov. DeSantis signed a budget that appropriated $12 million in funds derived from the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund to the Florida Department of Transportation “for implementing a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” Section 185 creates an incoherent definition of “unauthorized alien” that is inconsistent with federal immigration laws. This ill-defined designation may include people whose presence in the country and Florida is authorized by the federal government, but who now risk harassment for merely wishing to either enter or stay in Florida. 

The plaintiffs, nonprofit organizations that support immigrants and immigrant communities in Florida, have been harmed by the passage and enforcement of Florida’s so-called relocation program. The plaintiffs were forced to divert significant and scarce resources from their core organizational missions of representing and assisting immigrant communities to responding to inquiries from media outlets, clients, community members, nonprofit providers and civil society leaders in Texas, Florida and Massachusetts, all to determine how Section 185 has been applied and its implications for plaintiffs’ clients and their family members and the community-at-large.

Paul R. Chávez, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project:

“The Constitution is clear — the sole and exclusive power to regulate immigration policy is granted to the federal government, not the states. The scheme by Gov. DeSantis and the State of Florida to use taxpayer funds for the “relocation” of “unauthorized aliens” is a blatant and unlawful attempt to harass immigrants at the state level. Florida’s relocation program constitutes a discriminatory attack on immigrant communities and Gov. DeSantis’ unconstitutional actions must be stopped.”

George J. Leontire, principal at Leontire & Associates, P.C.:

“The Constitution protects immigrants from discrimination based on race and national origin and from arbitrary treatment by the government. Our complaint details that Gov. DeSantis’ scheme runs afoul of both the supremacy clause and equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is, therefore, unconstitutional.”

Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School:

“The relocation program is nothing more than an expensive political stunt designed to feed Gov. DeSantis's political ambitions on a diet of xenophobic, state-sponsored harassment.”

Shalyn Fluharty, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice:

"Gov. DeSantis’ relocation program directs the Florida Department of Transportation to contract with transportation companies; none of which have immigration authority, training or experience, yet they are asked to effectuate de facto deportations out of the state of Florida to other states. The United States of America is one unified republic, not 50 individual nations. The president and Congress have the duty to enforce our immigration laws. The governor’s efforts to create a separate, competing state-run immigration system impedes the federal government’s ability to do its job and undermines our democracy."

Tessa Petit, co-executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition:

“Gov. DeSantis has made clear his anti-immigrant sentiment, so much so that he is using much needed tax-payers dollars to harass and discriminate against immigrants. The audacity with which he undermines federal laws and establishes his own category of immigrants is another proof that his intentions are none other than to bully individuals and families who are part of our communities. For political ambitions, he pulled a heinous stunt in order to posture himself as a right-wing strongman using human beings as pawns. FLIC has since been diligently informing, supporting and protecting our communities and will continue to work through the impacts of that horrible action.”

Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet, executive director of Hope Community Center:

“Gov. DeSantis continues to use immigrants as pawns in his political chess game instead of looking out for the best interest of everyday Floridians. It is fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible to use federal funding to deceive and toy with the lives of asylum seekers who are simply trying to find a safe haven in our great state. His bullying tactics must stop. We call upon all our elected officials to protect our constitutional right to live without fear of harassment based on our country of origin. As an organization that serves more than 6,500 people — mostly immigrants — Hope CommUnity Center sees firsthand the impacts of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. We know that immigrants contribute significantly to our economy and every aspect of our society. In fact, immigrants are part of the solution, not part of the problem!” 

A copy of the lawsuit is available here.

Read more about the case:

SPLC DENOUNCES FLORIDA GOV.’S TRANSPORT OF MIGRANTS TO MARTHA’S VINEYARD AS WASTE OF TAXPAYER FUNDS AND CRUEL POLITICAL PLOY (Sept. 16, 2022)

SPLC DENOUNCES FLORIDA LT. GOV.’S XENOPHOBIC CALL TO SEND ‘ILLEGAL’ IMMIGRANTS OUT OF FLORIDA (Aug. 25, 2022) SPLC URGES U.S. TREASURY TO INVESTIGATE FLORIDA'S PLANNED REDIRECTION OF $12 MILLION IN FEDERAL PANDEMIC AID TO TARGET IMMIGRANTS  (June 9, 2022)

Adriana Rivera
Florida
adriana@flic.org
786-340-8006
Anna Núñez
Southern Poverty Law Center
anna.nunez@splcenter.org
334-201-9236
George J. Leontire
Leontire & Associates, P.C.
george@leontirelaw.com
508-889-0150
Ronald S Sullivan Jr.
Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law
rsullivan@law.harvard.edu
203-505-4871
Devra Gelman
Americans for Immigrant Justice
dgelman@aijustice.org
305-409-3639
Felipe Sousa Lazaballet
Hope CommUnity Center
fsousa-lazaballet@hcc-offm.org
407-955-6748

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.

Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice) is an award-winning non-profit law firm that fights for justice for immigrants through a combination of direct representation, impact litigation, advocacy and outreach. In Florida and on a national level, it champions the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; advocates for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence; serves as a watchdog on immigration detention practices and policies; fights to keep families informed, empowered and together; and pursues redress on behalf of immigrant groups with particular and compelling claims to justice.

Hope CommUnity Center fosters diverse, empowered, learning communities engaged in personal and societal transformation. Through service and advocacy, we stand together with immigrants and others who are tenacious and courageous against all systems of oppression.  

The Florida Immigrant Coalition is a statewide alliance of over 60 member organizations, including farmworkers, students, service providers, grassroots organizations, and legal advocates, who come together for the fair treatment of all people.