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Federal judge sides with state of Florida over Biden's immigration policies

Honduran migrants wait in line to plead their asylum cases earlier this month at a border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico.

Siding largely with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody, a federal judge ruled that the Biden administration’s handling of immigrants at the Southwest border violates federal law.

Moody’s office filed the lawsuit in 2021, alleging that the Biden administration violated immigration laws through “catch-and-release” policies that led to people being released from detention after crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.

The lawsuit centered, in part, on what state lawyers call the Biden administration’s “non-detention” policy and a policy known as “Parole Plus Alternatives to Detention,” or “Parole+ATD.”

U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell issued a 109-page ruling Wednesday that blamed the Biden administration for an influx of migrants and rejected the federal government’s rationale for its policies, likening the approach to “a child who kills his parents and then seeks pity for being an orphan.”

The lawsuit alleged releasing undocumented immigrants affects Florida because of issues such as increased education, health-care and criminal-justice costs.

Wetherell, a former state appellate judge appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, found that Florida’s claims about the alleged “non-detention policy” were “nonjusticiable” but that the Parole+ATD process violated the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.

The judge put his decision vacating the Parole+ATD policy on hold for seven days, giving the Biden administration time to appeal.

“For the most part, the court finds in favor of Florida because, as detailed below, the evidence establishes that defendants have effectively turned the Southwest border into a meaningless line in the sand and little more than a speed bump for aliens flooding into the country by prioritizing ‘alternatives to detention’ over actual detention and by releasing more than a million aliens into the country — on ‘parole’ or pursuant to the exercise of ‘prosecutorial discretion’ under a wholly inapplicable statute — without even initiating removal proceedings,” Wetherell, who is based in Pensacola, wrote.

According to court records, more than 1.16 million immigrants were released under the Biden administration’s policies between March 2021 and November 2022, with an estimated 100,000 ending up in Florida.

“Collectively, these actions were akin to posting a flashing, ‘Come In, We’re Open’ sign on the Southern border. The unprecedented ‘surge’ of aliens that started arriving at the Southwest border almost immediately after President Biden took office and that has continued unabated over the past two years was a predictable consequence of these actions,” wrote the judge, who presided over a week-long trial in January.

Wetherell noted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security “has never had sufficient funding to apprehend and detain every alien illegally in the country,” and, as a result, was forced to make “tough decisions” about which people to release.

“The fact that DHS must make those ‘tough decisions’ does not mean that it has free rein to adopt policies that contravene the clear mandates in the INA (Immigration and Nationality Act) or create ‘processing pathways’ that contort statutory language to effectuate its preferred policy of ‘alternatives to detention’ over actual detention,” the judge wrote.

He also scolded Biden’s lawyers for arguing that other administrations have used similar “processing pathways,” saying that “as Saint Augustine and William Penn said, “wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.’”

Wetherell acknowledged that “geopolitical and other factors” contributed to a surge of immigrants at the Southwest border, “but defendants’ position that the crisis at the border is not largely of their own making because of their more lenient detention policies is divorced from reality and belied by the evidence.”

DeSantis, who cruised to re-election in November and is viewed as a top contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has made the border situation a top issue, both as a candidate and as the state’s chief executive.

Wetherell’s ruling came a day after the start of the 2023 legislative session, in which Florida lawmakers will consider measures, backed by DeSantis, intended to expand the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

The governor said recently that he expected the state to prevail in the lawsuit. DeSantis’ press secretary, Bryan Griffin, hailed Wetherell’s ruling.

“Thanks to the leadership of @GovRonDeSantis and the efforts of @AGAshleyMoody, Florida has held the Biden Administration accountable for failing to defend our nation's borders,” Griffin said in a Twitter post.

Moody also applauded Wetherell’s decision.

“Today’s ruling affirms what we have known all along, President Biden is responsible for the border crisis and his unlawful immigration policies make this country less safe. A federal judge is now ordering Biden to follow the law, and his administration should immediately begin securing the border to protect the American people,” she said in a prepared statement.

The issue is rooted in a March 2021 decision by the Biden administration to release immigrants through the use of a “notice to report” to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement within specified periods of time. The decision came amid a strain on processing resources caused by an influx of migrants at the U.S. border.

In November, the Department of Homeland Security replaced the policy with the Parole+ATD process, which allows the conditional release of immigrants who meet certain criteria.

But Wetherell said the federal immigration law “requires detention unless parole is justified based on ‘urgent humanitarian reasons’ or ‘significant public benefit,’” while the Biden administration’s approach “effectively allows any alien to be released on parole whenever continued detention is not ‘in the public interest’ — whatever that means — and the alien is not a security or flight risk.”

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