Gov. Ron DeSantis expects more migrant flights out of Florida; state Democrats seek to block funding
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday said he expects more flights to transport undocumented immigrants to out-of-state “sanctuary” communities, as questions continued to swirl about a pair of flights that sent about 50 people from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
With support from other Republicans, DeSantis framed the controversial flights as a protest against the Biden administration’s handling of the Mexico border and as protecting Floridians from people transporting drugs into the United States. Florida lawmakers put money in the state budget this year for DeSantis to transport undocumented immigrants.
“There's also going to be buses, and there will likely be more flights,” DeSantis said Friday afternoon during an appearance at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. “But I'll tell you this, the Legislature gave me $12 million. We're going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we're protecting the people of the state of Florida.”
Meanwhile, WUSF Public Media and The News Service of Florida reported House Democrats want Republican legislative leaders to block funding that Gov. Ron DeSantis plans to continue using to transport migrants, after two planes took a group of about 50 people from Texas to Massachusetts last week.
Contending DeSantis has “abused” spending authority in the state budget, Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission about $12 million set aside for migrant-relocation efforts.
Incoming House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said DeSantis overstepped his authority in seeking to “score political points,” as the budget allocation is for relocating people who are in the U.S. illegally and found in Florida. She said the people flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week were mostly asylum seekers from Venezuela.
“By all accounts and everything that we've learned, these are folks who were seeking asylum from persecution in Venezuela and countries like that,” Driskell, an attorney, said.
The flights Wednesday mostly involved Venezuelan migrants and included about 10 children. Two planes went from San Antonio, Texas, to the Florida Panhandle community of Crestview before going north.
DeSantis’ decision to launch the flights spawned international headlines and drew harsh criticism from Democrats and immigrant advocates. President Joe Biden accused Republicans of “playing politics with human beings.”
“What they’re doing is simply wrong,” the president said at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus event Thursday evening. “It’s un-American. It’s reckless.”
Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka described the flights as "tantamount to a form of human trafficking for pure political games,” according to the State House News Service.
DeSantis’ office has not released full details of the flights, and questions continue about issues such as using Florida money to relocate migrants who had been in Texas.
DeSantis rejected as “false” reports that the migrants --- who were moved Friday from Martha’s Vineyard to a military base on Cape Cod --- were lured onto the flights in Texas with promises of housing and jobs.
"The folks that are contracted, not only did they give them a release form to sign, they actually gave them a packet. And in that packet included a map of Martha's Vineyard,” DeSantis said. “So, it was obvious that that's where they were going."
According to FlightAware tracking, two Ultimate Air shuttles flew Wednesday morning from San Antonio to Crestview. One of the planes then stopped in Charlotte, N.C., and the other stopped in Spartanburg, S.C.. They then went to Martha’s Vineyard.
State records show that the Florida Department of Transportation on Sept. 8 made a $615,000 payment to Oregon-based Vertol Systems Company Inc., which has an operation in Destin, for “relocation of unauthorized aliens.”
The governor’s office did not respond to questions asking if or how the company was involved in Wednesday’s flights.
The money for Vertol came from the $12 million that the Legislature steered to the state transportation agency, at DeSantis’ request, for “the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”
Massachusetts officials and residents scrambled to provide accommodations for the migrants after they landed Wednesday.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said she’s exploring how DeSantis sent the asylum seekers from Texas without notifying state and local government officials in Massachusetts.
“We are looking into that case, and we’ll be speaking with members of the Department of Justice,” Rollins told reporters Thursday, noting that Republican governors in Texas and Arizona have bused migrants to other places in the United States.
“We have several other sister communities, whether it’s D.C., New York, California, where we’ve seen things like this, and we’re hoping to get some input from the Department of Justice about what our next steps might be, if any at all,” she said.
Massachusetts immigration attorney Rachel Self told reporters Thursday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security helped process paperwork for the migrants before they got on the flights to Massachusetts.
Self contended that agents falsified addresses on the migrants’ paperwork and listed homeless shelters throughout the country as their residences, including one migrant who was sent to Martha’s Vineyard with an address listed as a homeless shelter in Tacoma, Wash. The migrants were also given incorrect information about which federal agency to report to after they arrived in Massachusetts, which could lead to their removal from the country, according to Self.
“It is clear that this was an intentional attempt to ensure that these migrants were removed in absentia when they failed to change their address with a proper agency. This was a purposeful derailment designed to prevent people from complying with federal immigration policies,” Self told reporters Thursday. “It is sickeningly cruel.”
DeSantis called the process employed in the flights “voluntary.”
“I think that if the states could send, I would send back to Mexico or back to the home country. But here we are doing it voluntarily,” DeSantis said. “They signed a release. And then they get a packet.”
“They're given a good ride. They're given everything. And that's just, you know, it's a humane thing to do,” DeSantis continued. “What's not humane is what Biden is doing. He's giving a false promise that the borders open, luring people to come here for political purposes.”
Democrats have called moving refugees to other states immoral, while lambasting this week’s relocation of Venezuelans who have escaped the socialist Maduro regime.
Florida Democrat gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist on Friday filed a public-records request to “force DeSantis to answer” for his actions.
“These people were fleeing, you know, socialist regimes, and then they're treated like they're still in a socialist regime by Gov. DeSantis,” Crist said during a campaign rally outside the Old Capitol in Tallahassee. “It's shocking. It's unbelievable. And he rails against that. Yet, he practices that himself. He's an autocrat. He wants to be a dictator. He's cruel. He's mean. And he needs to go."
Crist’s request included “any and all documents” related to the state’s migrant-transfer program, internal communications in DeSantis’ office about the program and communications related to the program between DeSantis’ office and the office of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.
Copyright 2022 WFSU. WUSF Public Media and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.