Florida defends its new immigration law in court

migrants at the U.S. border, American flag, barbed wire
By Stadratte via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody on Friday urged a federal judge to reject an attempt to block part of a new state law targeting people who transport undocumented immigrants into the state.

Lawyers in Moody’s office argued that U.S. District Judge Roy Altman should deny a request for a preliminary injunction sought by the Farmworker Association of Florida and individual plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in July.

The case centers on part of a broader immigration law that threatens felony charges for people who transport an immigrant who “entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the federal government since his or her unlawful entry.”

In seeking the preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs contend that federal immigration law trumps — or “preempts” — the state measure. Also, they contend that the state law is unconstitutionally vague.

But Moody’s office Friday tried to refute the arguments, in part focusing on the word “inspected” in the law.

“The challenged statute prohibits knowingly transporting individuals across state lines — both aliens and U.S. citizens alike — when the federal government has had no opportunity to inspect them following an illegal border crossing,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “Inspections serve several important purposes, including screening for communicable diseases, searching for contraband such as illicit fentanyl and determining if a person is a threat to national security. A person who has not been inspected should be reported to the federal government, not intentionally moved across the country, and Florida’s law codifying that commonsense proposition is neither preempted nor vague.”

The document also said the plaintiffs’ concerns about the law are “simply misplaced.”

“Visa holders, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) recipients and aliens with pending applications for asylum or removal proceedings have all been ‘inspected’ because they have notified the federal government of their presence, and the federal government can decide whether to take immediate action,” the state’s lawyers wrote.

But in the motion for a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the law “imposes a staggering hardship on plaintiffs, other Floridians and travelers to Florida, who now face criminal penalties for visiting their families, doing their jobs, seeking medical care and engaging in other everyday activities.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued, in part, that the state’s category of “inspected” migrants is not included in a federal law, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and that it was “created out of whole cloth.”

“Because the INA (Immigration and Nationality Act) does not answer whether a person has been ‘inspected’ ‘since’ entry, Section 10 (the part of the law) puts state and local officials in the untenable position of determining this classification themselves,” the motion said. “To enforce Section 10, Florida police, prosecutors, judges, and juries would have to examine a passenger’s entire immigration history, and then determine whether that history includes ‘inspection’ ‘since’ entry, without any federal definition to consult. There is no federally issued document that confirms whether a person has been ‘inspected’ since entry. There is no federal official to call, because federal officials cannot determine whether a person meets a classification that does not exist in federal law.”

The transportation restriction was included in an immigration bill that spurred heavy debate before it was approved this spring by the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The law (SB 1718) also includes changes such as requiring businesses with more than 25 employees to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of workers.

In arguing for the transportation restrictions, supporters said, in part, that it would help prevent human smuggling. But opponents and the lawsuit have contended that it could prevent friends and family from visiting each other, hamper parents from seeking health care for their children and affect churches that work with migrants.

DeSantis, who is running for president in 2024, and Moody have made immigration policy a high-profile issue in recent years. That includes the state filing lawsuits challenging the Biden administration over its handling of migrants crossing the country’s southern border.

The governor also has drawn national headlines for Florida-sponsored charter flights that brought migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts in September 2022 and Sacramento, Calif., in June. Alianza Americas and other plaintiffs filed a potential class-action lawsuit challenging the Massachusetts flights.

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