TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Legal advocates and immigrant rights organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court against Florida’s Governor and Department of Transportation Secretary, claiming the state’s migrant relocation policy is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute, and Boston-based law firm Leontire & Associates on behalf of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and Hope Community Center.

Gov. DeSantis and DOT Secretary Jared W. Perdue were named as defendants in the suit and are being sued in their official capacity.

The plaintiffs allege Section 185 of Florida’s 2022 General Appropriations Act (HB-5001) – which appropriated $12 million of federal COVID relief funds to the Department of Transportation “for implementing a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state” – is unconstitutional because it contradicts federal immigration law. In doing this, the state infringed upon the federal government by creating a “separate, parallel immigration system”, according to the lawsuit.

In a release, SPLC said the bill’s definition of “unauthorized alien” is not clear and could include migrants who are authorized to be in the country, such as those seeking asylum. The plaintiffs claim migrants now risk harassment for wanting to stay in Florida and the organizations were “forced to divert significant and scarce resources” while working to determine how the bill affects their clients.

“The scheme by Gov. DeSantis and the State of Florida to use taxpayer funds for the ‘relocation’ of ‘unauthorized aliens’ is a blatant and unlawful attempt to harass immigrants at the state level,” power to regulate immigration policy is granted to the federal government, not the states,” Paul R. Chávez, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, wrote in a statement. “Florida’s relocation program constitutes a discriminatory attack on immigrant communities and Gov. DeSantis’ unconstitutional actions must be stopped.”

The lawsuit is separate from the class-action suit filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard in September, alleging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials lured them onto the planes under false pretenses. Vertol, the company contracted by the state for transportation, Vertol CEO James Montgomerie, Perla Huerta, the woman paid to recruit immigrants for the move, and Florida Public Safety Czar Larry Keefe were added to the lawsuit earlier this week.

When asked for comment, the Governor’s office sent the following statement to WFLA.com:

The relocation program was funded by interest from federal COVID dollars and lawfully executed under an appropriation of the Florida state legislature (that, incidentally, had bipartisan support.) This program does not violate federal law. We will continue to defend the state’s actions against these politically motivated, unsound lawsuits.

Taryn Fenske, Communications Director