MIAMI — Florida sued the federal government Monday seeking to collect $1.5 billion it says the state has spent to provide schooling, health care and prison beds to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
"The people of Florida are saying, "Enough!" to paying an unfair share of the cost of providing services to illegal immigrants," said Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat running for reelection.
"The federal government should bear the financial responsibility for its actions and should pay for the cost of refusing to protect Florida's borders."
Miami is one of the leading destinations for immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and other Latin American and Caribbean nations.
A report released by Chiles' office last month concluded that Florida paid about $2.5 billion in 1993 to meet the basic needs of all immigrants. It estimated the state and local governments paid $884 million for services to 345,000 illegal immigrants.
The governor ticked off a list of costs to Florida taxpayers for services provided in 1993 to undocumented immigrants: $180 million for intensive English classes; $13 million for health care and $28 million for law enforcement.
"Local governments, as Dade County can attest, spent at least $622 million," Chiles said. The state's lawsuit seeks about $1.5 billion because Florida has been providing services to illegal aliens for more than a decade, he said.
Named as defendants are the U.S. government; Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Atty. Gen. Janet Reno; Walter Cadman, Miami district INS director, and Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services.
An INS spokesman in Washington declined to comment. "Our response will be filed in court," Rick Kenney said.
Joining the state of Florida in filing the lawsuit were the Dade County School Board, which runs the nation's fourth-largest public school system, and the Dade Public Health Trust, which operates Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, a popular destination for sick immigrants.
Despite the lawsuit, Chiles said he has been "encouraged by the level of cooperation that we've received recently from Washington." He noted last week's agreement with the INS to release and deport nonviolent illegal immigrants held in Florida prisons. That will free up about 500 prison beds.
Advocates for immigrants in south Florida said they supported the state's effort to force the U.S. government to pay a fairer share of the costs of illegal immigration. But they warned that immigrants shouldn't be made scapegoats for Florida's social ills.
"It's a mistake to blame all our problems on immigrants, when, in fact, many immigrants here are taxpayers who greatly contribute to our society," said Cheryl Little, an attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services.