Migrant workers and advocates sue over 'vague' language in new immigration law
TALLAHASSEE — Migrant workers and advocates have filed a federal lawsuit challenging part of a new Florida law that makes it a felony to transport into the state people who enter the country illegally, arguing the law is vague and will lead to “unlawful arrest, prosecution and harassment.”
The law, championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is among a series of measures adopted by state Republican leaders in recent years targeting immigrants entering the country from Mexico.
The measure passed during this spring’s legislative session included changes to a human-smuggling law to make it a felony to transport into the state an individual “whom the person knows, or reasonably should know” has entered the country illegally.
The law imposes penalties on 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.” People can be charged with a second-degree felony for each violation of the law.
But the lawsuit filed Monday in Miami argued that what is known as “Section 10” of the law does not include a definition of “inspected” and thus is “hopelessly vague and incoherent.”
“Section 10 is phrased in a way that could sweep in all manner of immigrants, including people who are lawfully present in the United States or are in the process of seeking lawful immigration status. The statute does not define the term ‘inspected’ and does not explain what it means to be inspected ‘since’ entry,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in the 33-page complaint.
Plaintiffs include the Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc. and migrant workers and advocates, who are identified by their initials. As an example, one of the plaintiffs, who works for a non-profit, helps bring immigrants from Georgia to Jacksonville for appointments with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials.
Another plaintiff, identified as “CA”, is a U.S. citizen who lives in Miami and is the legal guardian of her grandson, who was brought to the U.S. by his mother “who was fleeing from the country in fear for their lives,” according to the lawsuit. CA’s grandson is in the process of applying for what is known as “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status,” and he and his mother “did not have contact with federal immigration authorities” when they entered the U.S., the lawsuit said.
Several of the plaintiffs, including CA, frequently traveled to other states to visit family members or for seasonal jobs as migrant workers before the law went into effect on July 1.
The law “inflicts enormous harm on people’s ability to go about their daily lives,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued.
The law could prevent friends and family from visiting each other, hamper parents from seeking health care for their children and keep church members from bringing fellow congregants to worship, the lawsuit said.
The law “put thousands of Floridians and residents of other states — both citizens and noncitizens alike — at risk of being arrested, charged, and prosecuted with a felony for transporting a vaguely-defined category of immigrants into Florida,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.
The legal challenge also argued that the state law “usurps powers constitutionally vested in the federal government exclusively.”
“This federal framework is comprehensive and does not permit parallel or supplemental state immigration laws, including laws regarding the smuggling and unlawful transport of noncitizens,” the lawsuit said.
The Florida law “impedes the federal immigration scheme by preventing immigrants from entering Florida. And it puts state officials in the unlawful position of making complex determinations about people’s immigration status and history,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers added.
DeSantis, a contender in the 2024 Republican race for president, has focused on immigration challenges at the southern border with Mexico as one of his top issues since he was first elected governor in 2018. The state has filed lawsuits during the past few years challenging the Biden administration over its handling of immigration.
The governor also has drawn national headlines for Florida-sponsored charter flights that brought migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts last September and Sacramento, Calif., in June. Alianza Americas and other plaintiffs filed a potential class-action lawsuit challenging the Massachusetts flights.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday are represented by lawyers from several immigration- and civil-rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and the American Immigration Council.
The new 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.
At a ceremonial bill-signing event in May, DeSantis blasted federal immigration policies.
“This is just chaos,” DeSantis told supporters in Jacksonville. “We are supposed to be the world’s leading superpower, and yet we can’t even maintain control of our own southern border. The Mexican drug cartels have more to say about what goes on at the southern border than our own U.S. government does.”
The lawsuit pointed to comments DeSantis and his allies made about the proposed immigration changes.
Senate bill sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, “framed the need” for the legislation as “the external force” that would compel the federal government to “fix the problem,” the lawsuit said.
"This is the point we are at right now. We have to fix this … system. And they continue to refuse to do it. They will only act when they have to and when an external force pushes back. Florida is that external force right now," Ingoglia told a Senate committee in March.
But Monday’s lawsuit, which asks a judge to find that the disputed section of the law is unconstitutional and block its enforcement, alleged that the changes will put Farmworker Association of Florida workers — who transport migrants between states — at risk of “unlawful arrest, prosecution and harassment.”
The law also will “impede the federal immigration system” by preventing people who live in neighboring states “with a variety of immigration statuses” from being able to travel to immigration courts and other appointments with federal agencies in Florida, the lawsuit said.
The law is “unconstitutionally vague because it fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited, and because it authorizes and encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.