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Immigrant groups file new lawsuit against Florida officials who flew migrants to Martha’s Vineyard

Venezuelan migrants and volunteers gathered outside St. Andrew's Parish House in Martha's Vineyard, on Sept. 16.Boston Globe/Getty Images via Bloomberg

A Boston law firm and a Harvard institute have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of immigrant groups challenging the authority of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his transportation secretary to send 50 Venezuelan and Peruvian migrants to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14, court records show.

The case, filed in US District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Thursday, alleges DeSantis and Secretary of Transportation Jared W. Perdue violated the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause “by usurping the federal government’s sole role in regulating and enforcing immigration law,” and using a state appropriations act to “set aside $12 million for the ‘relocation’ of ‘unauthorized aliens’ using monies derived from federal funds intended to combat a deadly pandemic.”

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“Where Defendants intend to transport persons already engaged in the federal immigration process, and then in-fact did transport persons engaged in the federal immigration process, Florida will and has already directly created chaos in the achievement of Congress’ objectives,” the lawsuit says. “Consider the chaos which would ensue if every state had attempted transport to another state those it deems to be ‘unauthorized aliens.’”

The plaintiffs ask the court to block the implementation of the section of the appropriations act that was used to move the migrants and to declare the section unconstitutional, records show.

A spokeswoman for DeSantis, Taryn Fenske, said the project to relocate the migrants “was funded by interest from federal COVID dollars and lawfully executed under an appropriation of the Florida state legislature (that, incidentally, had bipartisan support.)”

“This program does not violate federal law,” Fenske said in a statement. “We will continue to defend the state’s actions against these politically motivated, unsound lawsuits.”

Representatives for Perdue did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case was brought by the Florida Immigrant Coalition Inc., Americans for Immigrant Justice Inc., and Hope CommUnity Center Inc., and the groups are represented by Boston-based law firm Leontire & Associates P.C., the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Criminal Justice Institute of Harvard Law School.

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George J. Leontire, principal at Leontire & Associates, said that 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.”

“The Constitution protects immigrants from discrimination based on race and national origin and from arbitrary treatment by the government,” Leontire said in a statement.

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., director of Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute, said in the statement that DeSantis’s migrant “relocation program is nothing more than an expensive political stunt designed to feed Gov. DeSantis’s political ambitions on a diet of xenophobic, state-sponsored harassment.”

DeSantis, Perdue, and other Florida officials are already facing a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the officials and others lied to migrants about where they were going and the benefits they would receive upon arrival in Martha’s Vineyard, the Globe has reported.

On Tuesday, that lawsuit, was expanded to include additional defendants, such as Perla Huerta, the mysterious Army veteran who migrants said recruited and enticed them to board the flights, the Globe reported.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.