Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ team responded to a new federal lawsuit brought by immigrant rights groups who challenge the constitutionality of the state organizing two flights of migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard.
Florida’s migrant relocation program is “lawfully executed under an appropriation of the Florida state legislature (that, incidentally, had bipartisan support.) This program does not violate federal law,” Taryn Fenske, communications director for DeSantis, said in a statement provided to Politico on Friday. “We will continue to defend the state’s actions against these politically motivated, unsound lawsuits.”
The 28-page lawsuit was filed Thursday by three groups — Florida Immigrant Coalition, Americans for Immigrant Justice and Hope Community Center — against DeSantis and state Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue.
It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
In September, Florida officials arranged flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, that carried 49 mostly Venezuelan migrants to the island where former President Barack Obama owns a home.
Local officials weren’t told in advance that the migrants were coming.
DeSantis, a Republican, claimed responsibility for the flights as part of a campaign to focus attention on what he has called the Biden administration’s failed border policies. He was joining Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the tactic of sending migrants to Democrat-controlled sanctuary destinations.
“Florida’s attempts to create its own immigration system came to a head on September 14, 2022, when individuals acting at the direction of Defendants sowed chaos and confusion by fraudulently inducing approximately 50 Venezuelan and Peruvian migrants, all of whom had been processed into the U.S. by immigration authorities, into taking a flight from Texas to Massachusetts, falsely promising them aid, jobs, and more,” the lawsuit says. “There was no aid.”
Despite initially welcoming the illegal immigrants — and condemning Republicans DeSantis and Abbott – Martha’s Vineyard officials admitted the elite Massachusetts island did not have the resources to address the influx of migrants flown in from the U.S.-Mexico border. The group was transported to a military base in Cape Cod.
Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature approved a $12 million budget item to relocate people in the U.S. illegally from Florida to another location. The money came from interest earned from federal funds given to Florida under the American Rescue Plan.
The lawsuit claims that the appropriation creates an incoherent definition of “unauthorized alien” that is inconsistent with federal immigration laws. The immigrant rights groups claim that the 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.
“Immigrants in the United States provide tangible benefits to the communities where they choose to relocate, economic and otherwise,” the lawsuit argues. “Spending $615,000 to transport asylum seekers from Texas to Massachusetts does not further a legitimate interest, it merely perpetuates xenophobia and hate by targeting Latin American and Caribbean migrants. Where the only justifications for a discriminatory law are based in prejudice, the law is unconstitutional even under rational basis review.”
The lawsuit also alleges Florida’s migrant relocation program discriminates against “people of color.”
“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,” Paul R. Chavez, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, said in a statement. “Florida’s relocation program constitutes a discriminatory attack on immigrant communities, and Gov. DeSantis’ unconstitutional actions must be stopped.”
The Martha’s Vineyard flight has also spawned other lawsuits accusing Florida of lying to the migrants in San Antonio to get them to agree to the flights.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.