By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - A federal judge in Florida on Wednesday agreed with the state's Republican attorney general that the policy of President Joe Biden's administration to release many people who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexican border rather than detaining them violates U.S. immigration law.
U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell in Pensacola blocked the administration from continuing to implement a 2021 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo that had authorized "alternatives to detention" to ease overcrowding in detention facilities. These alternatives included ankle bracelets, phone monitoring or check-ins by immigration officers. Republican critics have called the policy "catch and release."
Wetherell, appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump, said federal immigration authorities lack the power to implement those alternatives on a widespread basis under existing law. The judge agreed with the argument made by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who challenged the policy.
"Defendants have effectively turned the Southwest Border into a meaningless line in the sand and little more than a speedbump for aliens flooding into the country," Wetherell wrote, referring to non-U.S. citizens who cross the border illegally.
Wetherell gave the administration seven days to file an appeal before his decision takes effect.
Moody's office and the DHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The administration has said it lacks the resources and detention capacity to process a recent surge of migrants. Wednesday's ruling could lead to a significant increase in the number of people held in detention centers.
Moody sued DHS in 2021, claiming its policy, officially known as Parole Plus Alternative to Detention, violates a U.S. law called the Immigration and Nationality Act. More than 100,000 people had been released into Florida as a result of the administration's policy, forcing the state to incur substantial costs to provide social services, according to the lawsuit.
Federal immigration law allows DHS to "parole" migrants rather than detaining them "on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit." The administration argued that the 2021 memo was an exercise of that discretion because overcrowding in detention centers amounted to a humanitarian crisis.
Wetherell decided that the policy violated the requirement that the government consider parole on a case-by-case basis.
Florida and 19 other Republican-led states are separately challenging another administration policy that would allow hundreds of thousands of people from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and Nicaragua to be released into the United States rather than detained each year.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Will Dunham and Alexia Garamfalvi)