State of Florida urges federal court to throw out migrant flights case

The lawsuit alleges that the flights were unconstitutional and violated federal laws.

Image by Sergei Tokmakov, Esq. https://Terms.Law from Pixabay

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration on Tuesday argued that a Massachusetts federal judge should toss out a potential class-action lawsuit filed after Florida flew 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September.

In a 92-page court document, attorneys for DeSantis, other state officials and the Florida Department of Transportation contended that the lawsuit should be rejected for a series of procedural and substantive reasons. The lawsuit alleges that the flights were unconstitutional and violated federal laws.

“Plaintiffs obviously disagree with Florida’s policies and political leaders,” the state’s attorneys wrote in a memorandum of law. “But those disagreements are no substitute for asserting plausible facts or viable legal theories, or for overcoming fatal jurisdictional and immunity obstacles. They are also not a valid legal basis for hauling Florida, one of its agencies, the head of its executive branch and three other state officials into a Massachusetts courtroom.”

The state’s attorneys also argued that part of the case is “moot” because of a law that the Republican-controlled Legislature passed during a February special session. That law created a migrant-transportation program and repealed a disputed part of the state budget that was used to pay for the September flights.

The lawsuit, filed in September and revised in November, named as plaintiffs three Venezuelan migrants who were on the flights and the non-profit group Alianza Americas. In part, it alleged that the flights violated constitutional due-process and equal-protection rights — and were a “perverse photo opportunity” intended to help DeSantis politically.

“Defendants preyed upon class plaintiffs, exploiting them in a scheme to boost the national profile of defendant DeSantis and manipulate them for political ends,” the revised version of the lawsuit said. “Defendants knew or should have known that class plaintiffs were vulnerable and destitute, having crossed the U.S. border with Mexico with little to no money or possessions and without concrete prospects of employment. Defendants knew or should have known that these immigrants would be particularly desperate for humanitarian aid.”

The DeSantis administration paid $615,000 to Vertol Systems Company, Inc. to fly the migrants Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, with a brief stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview. The flights, which sparked a national controversy, came as DeSantis frequently criticizes federal border policies and is widely expected to run for the White House in 2024.

The lawsuit alleges that state officials and an organizer, Perla Huerta, deceived the migrants into getting on the flights. Along with arguing that the migrants’ rights were violated, it raises issues such as whether the state violated the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause because immigration is a federal issue.

It seeks damages and an injunction to prevent the state from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”

“Defendants’ actions in manipulating class plaintiffs and transporting them to Martha’s Vineyard constitute an egregious abuse of power that deprived class plaintiffs of their liberty in a manner that shocks the conscience,” the lawsuit said.

But in Tuesday’s memorandum of law, the DeSantis administration argued that the program was designed to “mitigate the negative effects of the migrant ‘surge’ on the state.”

“States and localities governed by both political parties are facilitating the transport of migrants throughout the United States,” the document said. “Private organizations are doing it too. The reason these programs have bipartisan support is simple: There is an ongoing, national migrant crisis that is overwhelming the resources of certain states and localities, often resulting in squalid conditions for the migrants.”

The memorandum of law disputed allegations of wrongdoing in the 14-count lawsuit and also raised a series of procedural objections.

As an example, the state’s attorneys wrote that a Massachusetts federal court should not have jurisdiction over the case. Also Tuesday, the defendants filed a motion to transfer the case to the federal Northern District of Florida.

“To be sure, the planes landed in Massachusetts,” the memorandum of law said. “But plaintiffs’ claims all arose before the plane touched down.”

The Legislature last year included $12 million in the state budget for the Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The DeSantis administration used part of that money to pay Vertol.

But amid the lawsuit in Massachusetts and another case in state court in Leon County, the Legislature on Feb. 10 passed a bill that sought to neutralize legal arguments against the handling of the flights.

In part, the bill repealed the part of the budget that was used to pay for the flights and created the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program in state law. Also, the bill funneled remaining money provided in the budget section back to state coffers, and allocated $10 million to the newly created program — effectively swapping out money.

That led to a Leon County circuit judge last week dismissing the lawsuit filed in state court. The DeSantis administration attorneys argued Tuesday that the new law should also scuttle part of the Massachusetts case, saying that the disputed section of the budget has “been repealed so it is impossible for any plaintiff to be subjected to future transportation” under the section.

The lawsuit is assigned to U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs. Along with state officials and the Department of Transportation, it names as defendants Vertol, Vertol President James Montgomerie and Huerta. Those defendants also are seeking dismissal of the case.

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