PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — In a federal courthouse in Pensacola on Thursday, closing arguments were made after four days of a trial on a lawsuit challenging Biden administration immigration policies.
The case was heard by U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
The lawsuit, filed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, goes into detail over the Biden administration’s alleged failure to secure the border.
“It’s very clear that open borders is the Biden administration policy,” DeSantis said in a news conference in September. “They want a massive illegal immigration into this country, and it’s obvious in the policies that they’re choosing.”
The lawsuit alleges in President Trump’s last full month in office, Border Patrol released 17 migrants caught at the border into the interior of the United States, while by July 2021, Biden’s Border Patrol had monthly releases of “over 60,000, and the numbers remain at that level to this day.”
One of the policies being challenged is called “The Parole + ATD,” which means Parole and Alternative to Detention. According to ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the program “uses technology and case management protocols to monitor noncitizen compliance with final orders of removal or with release conditions while their immigration proceedings are pending on the non-detained docket.” ERO said on a “case by case basis,” ERO officers based in the local ERO Field Office determine the type and manner of monitoring appropriate for each participant.
The State of Florida argues the policy is “arbitrary and capricious” and should be set aside. Attorneys for the Biden administration argued the policy helps avoid serious overcrowding at detention facilities that can pose health and safety risks, and that detention and release decisions are made on a “case-by-case basis.”
The Biden administration said the Parole + ATD policy is consistent with federal law known as the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Over the four days of trial, several top immigration leadership testified, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief Raul Ortiz.
Ortiz’ testimony shed light on the Parole + ATD program, saying officers use discretion when there are not enough beds at an ICE detention facility.
The State of Florida asked Ortiz about a “new border surge,” but Ortiz testified he has seen an increase since 2013.
“I don’t know about a new border surge,” Ortiz said. “It’s been – like I say, we’ve been busy for a while. I felt like since 2013, we have steadily increased the level of encounters that we’ve seen across the southwest border. So, I’m not sure I would characterize it as a new border surge, but we are busy.”
Ortiz did testify that there has been an increase in the number of migrants entering the U.S. since Biden took office in January 2021.
“I think we’ve seen increases for a variety of reasons, both part of what you described, but we’ve seen unrest in a lot of different countries,” Ortiz testified. “I mean, Brazil is going through some tremendous challenges. So, I wouldn’t – it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we start to see a spike in encounters from migrants from Brazil.”
The state argues that the policies are costing Florida taxpayers more money to offer services such as SNAP and counseling services.
Patricia Grogen with the Florida Department of Children and Families confirmed during her testimony just how much is being spent on non-citizens in the State of Florida.
Grogen confirmed 153,000 migrants have received services and benefits from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022.
The Biden administration argued that the DCF cannot exactly determine the exact number of migrants participating in the benefits in Florida.
The state argues the court should “hold unlawful and set aside” the Parole + ATD policy and the non-detention policy, issue permanent injunctive relief, issue declaratory relief declaring the policies unlawful, award Florida costs and reasonable attorney’s fees and award such other relief as the Court deems “equitable and just.”
At the end of the trial, Wetherell said the federal government has a problem with the legality of the Parole + ATD program and that they are putting a “square peg in a round hole.” He said he is leaning both ways, but said whichever way he chooses, he expects an appeal, which would then be resolved by someone at a “higher pay grade.”
The federal government argued that immigration officers are using discretion on a “case-by-case basis” and there are no unwritten policies encouraging the release of migrants into the U.S.
Wetherell said an opinion would “most-likely” be given in March.
Meanwhile, authorities encountered more than 2.76 million migrants crossing the border illegally last fiscal year, the largest number ever recorded, according to released U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data.
The record number of crossings during the fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, topped the 1.96 million migrant encounters the previous year, a sharp rise CBP attributed to an increased number of migrants fleeing authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Officials encountered 182,704 unique migrants in September, CBP said, a 15 percent increase over the prior month.
About 42 percent of those encounters were migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, more than double the level in September, 2021. Encounters with migrants from Mexico and northern Central America, meanwhile, declined.
Earlier in December, Florida state officials were also hit with a federal lawsuit filed by three groups, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Americans for Immigrant Justice and Hope Community Center. These groups are challenging the constitutionality of the state’s migrant relocation program.
Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature approved a $12 million budget item to relocate immigrants in the U.S. without legal permission out Florida and to another location. The money came from interest earned from federal funds given to Florida under the American Rescue Plan.
The lawsuit claims that the appropriation creates an incoherent definition of “unauthorized alien” that is inconsistent with federal immigration laws. The immigrant rights groups claim that the designation may include people whose presence in the country and Florida is authorized by the federal government, but who now risk harassment for merely wishing to either enter or stay in Florida.