Florida judge blocks key parts of 'sanctuary cities' law

More than two years after a fierce legislative debate, a federal judge on Tuesday blocked key parts of an immigration law that banned so-called sanctuary cities in Florida.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom, in a 110-page ruling, wrote that the "totality of the relevant facts present significant evidence, both direct and circumstantial, of the Legislature’s discriminatory motives in enacting SB 168 (the law)."

Bloom said two major parts of the law violated constitutional equal-protection rights and issued a permanent injunction against them.

One of those parts banned state and local agencies from having "sanctuary" policies that would prevent law-enforcement officials from cooperating with federal immigration-enforcement efforts.

The other part required law-enforcement agencies to use "best efforts" to support enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Bloom, who is based in South Florida, delved extensively into the Republican-dominated Legislature’s development of the law and pointed to what she described as an "immigrant threat narrative" that helped lead to it. She also cited behind-the-scenes involvement of the group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement in pushing for the law, including contacts with the office of Senate sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota.

"Based on the evidence presented, the court finds that plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of the evidence that SB 168 has discriminatory or disparate effects on racial and ethnic minorities, and these discriminatory effects were both foreseeable and known to the Legislature at the time of SB 168’s enactment," she wrote.

Lawmakers passed the measure in May 2019 along nearly straight party lines, before Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it. Several groups, such as the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Farmworker Association of Florida, filed the lawsuit in July 2019 raising a series of constitutional issues.

Bloom dismissed parts of the case in 2019 but allowed other parts to move forward. She held a six-day trial in January before taking eight months to issue Tuesday’s ruling.

The legislative debate over the measure was highly emotional and came as then-President Donald Trump made a priority of cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Also, DeSantis had promised during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign to ban sanctuary cities.

Backers touted the law as helping improve safety in communities.

"This is about the rule of law," DeSantis said as he signed the bill. "It’s also about public safety."

But Democrats and other opponents argued, in part, that the bill was focused on Republicans feeding their conservative political base, rather than fixing an actual problem.

"This is a proactive bill that panders to fear," Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said at the time the bill passed. "It panders to the specter of what is not."

Bloom included references in her ruling to a well-known DeSantis campaign ad in 2018 about immigration and comments he made during his 2019 inauguration address.

"(While) running for his current position, Governor DeSantis also perpetuated the immigrant threat narrative through his campaign advertisements, which depicted him building a wall with his son, and his public statements associating ‘illegal immigrants’ with ‘lawlessness’ and voicing his support for eliminating sanctuary jurisdictions," the judge wrote.

To back her conclusions about discriminatory effects of the law, Bloom pointed to issues such as expert testimony about racial profiling by police.

"The testimony supports the finding that there is a direct connection between racial profiling and proactive policing, which disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities," she wrote. "The described ‘immigrant threat narrative’ further aggravates racially discriminatory law enforcement practices."

Bloom earlier in the case issued an injunction against part of the law that dealt with state and local law-enforcement officers transporting people with immigration detainers to federal facilities. She said that part was "preempted" by federal immigration law and, as a result, was unconstitutional.