TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge Wednesday rejected a request by the Biden administration to toss out a lawsuit filed by Florida over the release of undocumented immigrants.
Pensacola-based U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell denied a motion by U.S. Department of Justice attorneys to dismiss the case, which Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office filed last year.
The lawsuit alleges that the Biden administration has violated immigration laws through policies that have led to people being released from detention after crossing the U.S. border with Mexico. Also, it alleges that the releases affect Florida because of issues such as increased education, health care, and criminal-justice costs.
Justice Department attorneys raised a series of arguments in seeking dismissal of the case, including disputing a Florida contention that the Biden administration has a “non-detention” policy.
But Wetherell, a former state appeals court judge, ruled that the lawsuit should continue to move forward.
“Suffice it to say the court is wholly unpersuaded by defendants’ position that they have unfettered discretion to determine how (or if) to comply with the immigration statutes and that there is nothing that Florida or this court can do about their policies even if they contravene the immigration statutes,” Wetherell wrote in a 37-page decision. “This position is as remarkable as it is wrong because it is well established that no one, not even the president, is above the law and the court unquestionably has the authority to say what the law is and to invalidate action of the executive branch that contravenes the law and/or the Constitution. Thus, if Florida’s allegations that defendants are essentially flaunting the immigration laws are proven to be true, the court most certainly can (and will) do something about it.”
Moody has filed or joined a series of lawsuits challenging the Biden administration, as she and Gov. Ron DeSantis regularly criticize the handling of undocumented immigrants entering the country.
“Congress has not given immigration officials unbounded discretion regarding the detention of arriving aliens,” the state’s lawyers wrote in a March court document. “It has instead expressly commanded those officials to detain arriving aliens.”
But the federal government has contended that officials have discretion in carrying out immigration laws, taking into account issues such as limited detention space, humanitarian reasons and prioritization of resources. Also, the federal government argued Florida lacks legal “standing” to pursue the case.
“In particular, plaintiff hypothesizes that paroled noncitizens might settle in Florida and, if so, then might commit crimes or require social services,” the federal government argued in a court document filed in April. “Plaintiff’s predictions are too attenuated and uncertain to provide standing. If such incidental, conjectural consequences were sufficient … the federal courts could be drawn into every immigration policy dispute between a state and the federal government. Plaintiff’s theory would characterize any increase of noncitizens within its borders necessarily as an injury.”
But Wetherell, who was nominated to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, refused to dismiss the case based on standing.
“Florida has plausibly alleged that the challenged policies already have and will continue to cost it millions of dollars, including the cost of incarcerating criminal aliens and the cost of providing a variety of public benefits, including unemployment benefits, free public education and emergency services to aliens who settle in Florida after being ‘paroled’ into the country,” Wetherell wrote.
Also, Wetherell wrote that he has not overlooked the federal government’s arguments that “Congress has authorized it to establish immigration enforcement policies and priorities, specifically those related to allocating its limited resources, thereby conveying discretion.”
“However, Congress was presumably aware that defendants have limited resources when it enacted the detention requirement, yet it still chose to use language mandating detention,” he wrote. “Even if resource allocation and other policy priorities can be considered in defendants’ exercise of their limited parole authority … those considerations do not give defendants carte blanche to release arriving aliens without undertaking individualized case-by-case assessments as required by that statute, as they have allegedly done through the challenged policies — particularly if, as Florida alleges, defendants have essentially created the problem the challenged policies seek to alleviate.”