US judge blocks Florida law that bars transporting migrants into state

By Ted Hesson and Daniel Wiessner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. judge temporarily blocked part of a Florida law on Wednesday that imposes criminal penalties for willfully transporting people who lack legal immigration status into the state.

The law, which took effect in 2023, amended the crime of human smuggling to classify such cases as felonies.

U.S. District Judge Roy Altman cited testimony from the plaintiffs that they were "now too afraid to travel in and out of Florida with their undocumented friends or family members - for fear of being arrested or prosecuted or of having their family members deported."

Altman, an appointee of Republican former President Donald Trump, blocked the law pending the outcome of a lawsuit by the Farmworker Association of Florida and seven people who say they have been impacted.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, made immigration a central theme of his failed presidential campaign and has continued to prioritize the issue, a top concern for voters in the run-up to the Nov. 5 U.S. elections.

The Florida law also allocated funds to move migrants without lawful status out of the state, restricted access to ID cards, and required more businesses to use an electronic system to validate a person's eligibility to work.

The litigation only challenged the part of the law dealing with transport of migrants.

In a statement, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that represent the plaintiffs praised the ruling as a major victory for Floridians.

"This order recognizes the irreparable harm (the law) is causing immigrants, families, and their communities by unconstitutionally usurping the powers of the federal government to subject them to cruel criminal punishment," said Amien Kacou, a staff attorney for the ACLU's Florida chapter.

The Florida governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Florida's law is part of a nationwide effort by Republican officials to address an increase in illegal border crossings in recent years that they say President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has failed to stem.

Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma have passed laws allowing local officials to arrest, prosecute, and order the deportation of people who lack legal immigration status.

The Biden administration and civil rights groups have sued to block those laws, saying they interfere with federal enforcement of immigration laws, as several other states consider adopting similar measures.

Civil rights groups say Florida's ban on migrant transport will place thousands of people, including many U.S. citizens, at risk of being arrested for simple acts such as driving a relative to a doctor's appointment or going on a family vacation.

Altman said on Wednesday the law is likely invalid because it "extends beyond the state's authority to make arrests for violations of federal immigration law and, in so doing, intrudes into territory that's preempted" by U.S. law.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)