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Judge blocks Florida law criminalizing transport of undocumented immigrants into state

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked the enforcement of a Florida law that makes it a felony to transport undocumented immigrants into the state, putting in question the fate of a key part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ immigration agenda.

The state law, which went into effect last July to prevent undocumented immigrants from coming into Florida, has already resulted in arrests and human smuggling charges. In one case, a Mexican national has been detained in a county jail for nearly a year on human smuggling charges after he was arrested for driving six other Mexicans in a van from Georgia into Florida.

Judge Roy K. Altman, a Trump-appointed jurist in the Southern District of Florida, said that the law “extends beyond the state’s authority to make arrests for violations of federal immigration law, and in doing so, intrudes into territory that’s preempted.”

“In this case, any harm the state may suffer from an injunction is overweighed by the harm [the transportation law] poses both to the Plaintiffs and to the United States, which has the ultimate interest in protecting federal supremacy in the realm of immigration,” Altman wrote.

The decision comes after a federal lawsuit was filed in August by the Farmworker Association of Florida and several of its members, who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy organizations. The Farmworker Association, which advocates for almost 12,000 seasonal and migrant farm workers across the state, argued the law hurts members of immigrant communities, including mixed-status families and workers, as well as the people who help them.

In Wednesday’s order, Altman wrote that he temporarily blocked the law because, otherwise, the group would “suffer ‘irreparable harm.” He said that its members would face family separations and that the law would impact service providers that transport immigrants across state lines to appointments for medical and immigration services.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request seeking comment on the court decision.

Consequences for criminal cases?

Under the law, which took effect last year, people can face a third-degree felony charge for “knowingly and willfully” transport someone into Florida who “the person knows, or reasonably should know, has entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the Federal Government since his or her unlawful entry from another country.”

Mark Arias, an attorney who represents Raquel Lopez Aguilar, a Mexican national charged last year under the law, said he would be requesting his client’s release following the court decision. Aguilar, has been in jail since his arrest last August. He is awaiting his pre-trial hearing, scheduled for next week.

As the lawsuit has unfolded, the state has maintained its position in support of the law.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who is a defendant in the lawsuit, has argued in court documents that the plaintiffs did not have the legal standing to bring the case forward and clarified that visa holders, DACA recipients, asylum seekers and people with pending removal proceedings are not subject to punishment because they are considered “inspected” by the federal government.

Altman rejected arguments that the law is vague, saying the statute does not fail to “put reasonable people on notice of its meaning.”

The plaintiffs and their attorneys celebrated Altman’s decision to block the law on Wednesday. Amien Kacou, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, called it a “much-needed win for Floridians.”

“For too long, our state has imposed a barrage of anti-immigrant laws and policies that harm citizens and noncitizens alike,” he said in a statement. “We salute the courage of the individual and organizational plaintiffs who will continue to pursue this litigation.”


© 2024 Miami Herald

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