Florida illegal immigration suit

The Event: Florida governor Lawton Chiles sued the federal government for nearly $1 billion to reimburse his state for the costs of its handling of illegal immigrants

Date: 1994

Location: Florida

Significance: Although the Florida lawsuit was eventually dismissed, the case was important because it represented the first time a state sued the federal government for costs associated with illegal immigrants. The state alleged that the growing number of illegal immigrants in Florida was the result of flawed federal immigration policies that imposed an unfair economic burden on the state.

In 1994, Florida became the first state to sue the federal government for reimbursement of the costs of services to immigrants. Florida’s long coastline had historically provided popular entry points for large numbers of immigrants bound for the United States fromWest Indian and Central American countries such as Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua. Florida also experienced several mass influxes of immigrants, including the so-called Mariel boatlift, in which as many as 125,000 refugees may have fled Cuba through the port of Mariel in response to a temporary Cuban suspension of restrictions on emigration before Fidel Castro again closed his country’s borders. At that time, U.S. immigration policy allowed the Cuban immigrants to stay in the United States.

Lawton Chiles was elected governor of Florida in 1990. By 1993, it was estimated that 345,000 undocumented immigrants were living in Florida who had cost the state $884 million in public services. Governor Chiles repeatedly asked the federal government to reimburse the state for money spent on the immigrants. He was part of a group of governors who wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton asking for federal assistance to states with large immigrant populations.

Frustrated by the failure of the federal government to respond, Chiles sent a letter to Florida state attorney general Bob Butterworth on December 31, 1993, asking him to sue the federal government and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Butterworth filed the suit in behalf of Florida on April 12, 1994, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Miami division. The suit charged that the state of Florida had incurred unfair expenses in services to immigrants as a result of the federal failure to enforce U.S. immigration policies properly.

On August 5, 1994, the number of refugees attempting to flee Cuba again rose dramatically when Fidel Castro instructed his country’s coast guard to allow Cubans to leave the country.With thousands of new immigrants reaching Florida on makeshift rafts, arriving in need of food, clothing, and medical attention, Governor Chiles again appealed to the federal government for help. On August 20, 1994, President Clinton directed that Cuban refugees should be sent to camps at the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay on Cuba, instead of granting them asylum in the United States.

On December 20, 1994, U.S. district judge Edward B. Davis dismissed Florida’s lawsuit on the grounds that federal assistance to states for immigration expenses was a political question, not a legal issue. The state then appealed its case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. However, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision on November 8, 1995, and dismissed the claims of the state. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case when it denied a petition for writ of certiorari on May 13, 1996.

Heather R. Love

Further Reading

  • Boulard, Garry. “Immigration: Left to the States.” State Legislatures 32, no. 9 (October-November, 2006): 14-17. 
  • Copeland, Emily. “When Backyards Are Borders: The Debate over Immigration Issues in Florida, 1994-1996.” In The Ethnic Entanglement: Conflict and Intervention in World Politics, edited by John F. Stack and Lui Hebron. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. 
  • Garcia, Maria Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 

See also: Cuban immigrants; Florida; Illegal immigration; Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.; Immigration law; Immigration waves; Mariel boatlift.

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