South Miami to File Lawsuit Challenging Florida's New Ban on Sanctuary Cities

Activists protest SB 168 at the Florida State Capitol.
Activists protest SB 168 at the Florida State Capitol. Photo courtesy of Florida Immigrant Coalition
Since its inception, Senate Bill 168 was something critics said Florida never needed. The bill, which originated from an anti-immigrant extremist group, sought to force municipalities across the state to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and to ban towns from self-designating as sanctuary cities despite the fact no city in Florida does that. Nevertheless, state legislators passed the bill, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law last month.

Now, South Miami has stepped up as the first Florida city to challenge the new law in court. Last night, the South Miami City Commission unanimously voted to hire a lawyer to fight the measure.

"Various sections of SB 168 are unconstitutional for a number of reasons including vagueness, since it is likely to lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, thereby making it difficult for the City of South Miami's Police Department to know how to comply or how to be able to confirm that they follow federal immigration laws," the city's resolution states.

During a short special commission meeting about the sanctuary bill, Mayor Philip Stoddard said city leaders had been approached by representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) who were hoping South Miami would lead the charge in a lawsuit challenging the new law. Stoddard said he worries undocumented residents would stop reporting crimes if local police were to begin enforcing immigration policy.

"Our police are responsible for maintaining the public safety, and as soon as they are seen as somebody who might turn you in if you called for assistance, they’re no longer trusted and they can no longer do their primary job of keeping all the citizens and all the residents of a community safe," Stoddard said. "It creates divisions."

City Attorney Thomas Pepe said state law conflicts with federal law about whether a city such as South Miami would be reimbursed for its police force's cooperation with immigration agents. Plus, Pepe said the city could be sued for wrongfully detaining immigrants.

"If the city detains someone and there is no warrant... the city could be liable for due process and equal protection kind of claims that could be filed by the person that was detained by the city," he said.

According to Pepe, seven nonprofit organizations will join the city as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Though the city's resolution instructs Pepe to hire outside legal counsel, it's unclear when South Miami plans to file a lawsuit. The SPLC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.