Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute (CJI), led by Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. ’94, is among several groups of attorneys representing three immigrant support organizations that last week filed a lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ’05 to halt a scheme that sent dozens of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September.
The suit against DeSantis and Jared W. Perdue, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, alleges that Florida violated the U.S. Constitution when it appropriated $12 million from the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund for a migrant relocation program — one that Florida has insisted will continue.
“The relocation program is nothing more than an expensive political stunt designed to feed Governor DeSantis’s political ambitions on a diet of xenophobic, state-sponsored harassment,” says Sullivan, Harvard’s Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and director of its Criminal Justice Institute.
The Criminal Justice Institute is joined by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Leontire & Associates in representing plaintiffs Florida Immigrant Coalition, Inc., Americans for Immigrant Justice, Inc., and Hope CommUnity Center, Inc.
According to Sullivan, the suit challenges Section 185 of Florida’s 2022 General Appropriations Act, which was signed by DeSantis in June, and which set aside millions of dollars to transport “unauthorized aliens” to other states. Following the bill’s passage, an agent of the Florida Department of Transportation approached migrants near a shelter in San Antonio, Texas, offering gift cards and free flights to the Northeast, where, she said, they would find ready assistance. Instead, the complaint says that Massachusetts officials were blindsided when private planes left the migrants on Martha’s Vineyard in September.
Sullivan alleges that the governor’s plan violates the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause by unlawfully interfering in immigration enforcement, a power reserved solely to the federal government. He and other advocates also believe that Florida’s actions infringe on the Equal Protection Clause because, they say, the relocation plan was designed to target a specific class of people — namely, immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants.
“The Constitution protects immigrants from discrimination based on race and national origin and from arbitrary treatment by the government,” says George Leontire, principal at Leontire & Associates and instructor at Harvard Law’s Trial Advocacy Workshop. “Our complaint details that Governor DeSantis’s scheme runs afoul of both the supremacy clause and equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is, therefore, unconstitutional.”
On December 1, Sullivan and the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, asking the court to declare Florida’s migrant relocation program unconstitutional — and, they hope, end it permanently.