Vigil Harvey Ward

At a recent Gainesville protest, City Commissioner Harvey Ward asked the crowd to support the city joining the lawsuit. 

Gainesville’s Westminster Presbyterian Church United is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody over the constitutionality of SB 168. There are currently 10 plaintiffs and the City of Gainesville may join the suit.

DeSantis signed SB 168 into law on June 14, and it became effective July 1. The law bans sanctuary policies and requires local governments to use “best efforts” to support federal immigration law enforcement.

The law prompted the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office to begin holding undocumented immigrants for an additional 48 hours after their release to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers extra time to decide whether to take the person into custody.

“Attorney General Moody is ready to defend the constitutionality of the sanctuary cities ban. As this is ongoing litigation, it would not be appropriate to comment further,” Lauren Schenone, the director of public affairs at the Office of the Florida Attorney General, wrote in an email.

Westminster, located at 1521 NW 34th St., QLatinx, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Farmworker Association of Florida, WeCount!, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Hope Community Center, The Guatemalan-Maya Center, Inc., Family Action Network Movement and the City of South Miami filed a lawsuit arguing several sections of the law are unconstitutionally vague and violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Community Justice Project and the Immigration Clinic of the University of Miami School of Law.

The Gainesville city attorney is reviewing the suit after a motion to do so passed unanimously at the last commission meeting on June 20, said Commissioner Harvey Ward.

Larry Hannan, spokesperson for Southern Poverty Law Center, said the law takes power away from local governments.

“If communities have other major problems, you know, this law basically says you have to focus on immigration enforcement,” Hannan said. “When there might be an opioid problem, or if the murder rate goes up, they still have to put resources into this.”

The lawsuit alleges the “best efforts” clause may lead law enforcement to use race as a proxy for immigration status. It also states it is unclear whether local government officials can adopt policies to ensure immigration enforcement does not undermine cooperation with their own law enforcement officers. For example, a police chief telling officers not to detain immigrants at a hurricane shelter may not be using their “best efforts.”

Ward spoke about the lawsuit Friday evening at the Gainesville Lights for Liberty: Vigil to End Human Detention Camps protest. He said the commission would move forward in joining the case, if he had anything to do with it.

“I’m going to need some support from you on this. I'm going to need you, now or when you get home, to email the city commission,” Ward said to the crowd of about 100, pausing to spell the email address twice. “And tell us that you want us to join the lawsuit against [SB] 168.”

Ward said he intends to ask the city attorney for a status report on the lawsuit during commissioner comment at the meeting Thursday. He wants the commission to have an opportunity to digest the report.

“I do hope that we will take action on it,” Ward said. “My guess is that it won't be this meeting when we take action, but that we can put some procedural steps down to move forward.”

Rev. Larry Green, the pastor of Westminster and executive director of the Alachua County Human Rights Coalition, was one of the organizers of the Friday protest. He told the crowd Jesus was a radical and they should follow his example. He also talked about the lawsuit and urged the protestors to get their churches and organizations to join as well.

"If you are part of a church where your pastor does not want to preach politics, tell him to study Jesus," Green said.

Green said the Human Rights Coalition should also be a plaintiff by next week. He plans to meet with the county commissioners in August to ask them to sign on and to make a public request at a commission meeting.

QLatinx, another plaintiff, is a racial, social and gender justice organization based in Central Florida that was founded in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, said Christopher Cuevas, the executive director.

Immmigration has been a prime issue for the group, because several of those impacted were undocumented immigrants at the time. Cuevas said they did not know they could apply for U visas, which are set aside for victims of violent crimes, and many were apprehensive to disclose their citizenship status to law enforcement.

Cuevas said the “best practices” mandate has only increased fear in this community. It discourages immigrant communities from reporting violence and injustice they’ve experienced and makes it more difficult for them to feel safe navigating day-to-day.

“Questioning whether they can go to work, questioning whether they can drop their kids off at school, whether they can access quality healthcare, if they have to travel great distances,” Cuevas said, “It really makes our communities feel as though they have to seclude themselves and sequester themselves to their homes, for fear of any kind of repercussions that may result from being out and potentially being racially profiled and questioned about their status.”