Florida illegal immigration suit Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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 from West Indian immigrants;and Florida[Florida]West 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 boatliftMariel in response to a temporary Cuban suspension of restrictions on emigration before Castro, Fidel[p]Castro, Fidel;emigration policyFidel Castro again closed his country’s borders. At that time, U.S. immigration policy allowed the Cuban immigrants to stay in the United States.Chiles, Lawton[cat]ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION;Florida illegal immigration suit[01830]Chiles, LawtonFlorida;illegal immigrationsuit[cat]ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION;Florida illegal immigration suit[01830][cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Florida illegal immigration suit[01830][cat]IMMIGRATION REFORM;Florida illegal immigration suit[01830]

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 Clinton, Bill[p]Clinton, Bill;and Florida illegal immigration suit[Florida illegal immigration suitBill 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 Butterworth, BobBob 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 Boat people;Cubansmakeshift 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 Guantanamo Bay, Cuba;Cuban refugeesGuantánamo Bay on Cuba, instead of granting them Asylum, political;Cuban immigrantsasylum 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.Chiles, LawtonFlorida;illegal immigration suit

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.

Cuban immigrants


Illegal immigration

Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.

Immigration law

Immigration waves

Mariel boatlift

Categories: History