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11th Circuit lifts block on Florida sanctuary city law

Opponents claimed the law would increase racial profiling and reduce public safety. The federal appeals court disagreed.

ATLANTA (CN) — An Eleventh Circuit panel on Thursday reinstated a Florida law that bans state and local agencies from implementing policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration agents.

The ruling reversed the decision of a lower court, which had struck down parts of the statute it deemed racially motivated.

In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel ruled the city of South Miami and several immigrant rights organizations did not show they would be harmed by the law. The judges also questioned the groups’ decision to sue Florida’s governor and attorney general when local and federal officials are the ones tasked with enforcement.

The organizations "failed to produce concrete evidence that [Senate Bill] 168 is an imminent threat to their members or the immigrant community,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge William H. Pryor wrote. While "the record is rife with speculative fears of future harm, it "fails to establish that local officers profiled anyone based on SB 168.”

“The organizations’ alleged injury is neither traceable to the governor or attorney general nor redressable by a judgment against them because they do not enforce the challenged provisions,” Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, added. “Instead, local officials, based on the state law, must comply with federal immigration law.”

Pryor was joined in the opinion by Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, a Bill Clinton appointee, and U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a Donald Trump appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida.

Kristen Loveland, attorney for the immigrant rights groups, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed SB 168 into law in 2019, forcing police to use “best efforts” to enforce immigration laws and banning state and local agencies from putting in place policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration agents. At the time, he hailed the end of so-called sanctuary cities in the state.

The city of South Miami and several immigrant rights organizations sued the Republican governor and attorney general to stop the law from taking effect. They argued the measures could lead to racial profiling and did not improve public safety.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom, a Barack Obama appointee, agreed, ruling parts of the law unconstitutional in a September 2021 opinion.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody appealed that decision to the Eleventh Circuit last spring. She argued that Bloom had “committed numerous errors to arrive at the remarkable conclusion that the Florida Legislature had secret racist motivations in enacting SB 168.”

During oral arguments last month, the Eleventh Circuit panel hinted they agreed with her, raising questions about why the immigrant rights groups would choose to sue the governor and attorney general and casting doubts on whether they even had standing to sue.

Thursday’s 33-page ruling solidified those doubts. The organizations "have offered nothing to prove that the governor or attorney general has enforced or threatened to enforce SB 168, let alone that they have threatened to do so in a racially discriminatory way,” Pryor wrote.

“The record lacks any evidence that links the governor or attorney general to racial profiling by local officers under SB 168,” he continued, noting that SB 168 "provides the governor with few, if any, tools to make the judgment calls that might result in racial profiling."

"Federal officials request cooperation," he wrote. "Local officials make the arrests. Local officials transport detainees to federal custody.”

In a concurring opinion, Mizelle took issue with the lower court’s reliance on a legislative committee’s use of immigration data gathered by the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies — both organizations deemed “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The district court assumed that the data was suspect solely because of the alleged views of FAIR and CIS," and the court then "concluded that use of the data was proof of racial animus by the Florida Legislature as a whole," Mizelle wrote. “The Florida Legislature is permitted to use objectively verifiable data without being condemned because of who collected the data.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling. Still, the decision will likely please DeSantis, who has railed against illegal immigration and “sanctuary cities” since first running for the governor's office in 2018.

This year, DeSantis called upon the Florida Legislature to pass another immigration bill that would make it a third-degree felony for anyone to transport or harbor undocumented immigrants in the state.

That bill, SB 1718, also requires some hospitals to gather patients’ immigration status on admission forms and prohibits local governments from issuing them identification cards.

Several immigrant rights groups have spoke out against the bill, including the Florida Immigrant Coalition. The group issued a “travel advisory” warning people about coming to the Sunshine State due to "unconstitutional laws" that are "targeted at immigrant communities" and "abuse civil liberties.”

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