Florida lawmakers on Friday approved an expansion of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial program to relocate migrants, giving the Republican leader authority to transport individuals from anywhere in the country.
The measure, now headed to DeSantis’ desk after passing the GOP-led House on a 77-34 vote, would allow his administration to pick up where the governor left off last year when he sent two planes of migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The attention-grabbing act thrust DeSantis into the middle of the national debate on immigration, earning the potential 2024 hopeful praise from conservatives and widespread condemnation from migrant advocacy groups and the White House.
The program had stalled amid multiple legal challenges and questions as to whether the DeSantis administration had violated state law by rounding up migrants in Texas. The budget law that created the $12 million program specified that the money was set aside to relocate “unauthorized aliens from this state.”
At DeSantis’ urging, lawmakers meeting in a special session this week voted to remove the restriction on where the state could pick up migrants. The program would also come under the purview of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Because DeSantis has declared a state of emergency related to immigration, this would allow the administration to award millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to companies to move migrants across the country with little public disclosure.
The legislation comes as Florida has experienced a spike of migrants from Cuba and Haiti attempting to reach the state’s coast by boat. However, the bill’s sponsor, GOP state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, said giving the DeSantis administration freedom to conduct missions outside of Florida would help stem the flow of migrants into the state.
“The state of Florida is currently in a state of emergency because of the ineptness and the incompetence of the federal government when it comes to immigration policy,” Ingoglia said Tuesday during a committee hearing on the bill. “In fact, I would say that someone should declare the federal government itself its own disaster area.”
The bill passed the state House on Friday over the strong objections of Democrats, who said the state does not have a constitutional role in addressing the country’s immigration issues. It passed the state Senate on a 27-12 party-line vote Wednesday. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.
“There’s nobody at this table who honestly thinks that we have a good immigration policy right now,” state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, said at a news conference Monday. “There’s no one at this table who will say Joe Biden is doing a great job with immigration. However, it’s their authority.”
In September, individuals working on behalf of the DeSantis administration in San Antonio convinced 49 migrants – most if not all asylum-seekers from Venezuela – to board two flights headed to Martha’s Vineyard. As the migrants arrived in Massachusetts to the confusion of locals, DeSantis took credit for arranging the mission during an appearance on Fox News.
Public records have since shed light on the clandestine mission, which included hiring a company with close ties to a DeSantis administration official to arrange the flights and using a woman named “Perla” to help convince migrants to take the flights.
Attorneys for the migrants have filed a class-action lawsuit, saying their clients were misled into agreeing to the flights and had been told that they would arrive to find housing, jobs and help with the immigration process. In fact, nobody on Martha’s Vineyard even knew they were coming, local officials have said. A migrant who aided Perla told CNN that he was misled into helping her recruit migrants for the trip.
On Wednesday, Ingoglia said it was on the migrants to inform the federal government of their location. He insisted that the state would only transport people voluntarily and said that so-called sanctuary jurisdictions are better equipped to provide resources for migrants than Florida.
Under the legislation, $10 million would be reallocated to the program under the state Division of Emergency Management for use through June. DeSantis in his proposed budget set aside another $12 million to continue the program.
Democrats suggested that Republicans were retroactively cleaning up DeSantis’ missteps during the mission to Martha’s Vineyard and helping him raise his profile so he can run for president in 2024.
“What we’re doing right now is carrying the water for the governor, knowing that what he did was wrong, and you are holding your nose to vote for this and saying that it’s right,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones. “This is wrong. It is not becoming of us as a state. It is not becoming of us as human beings, and it’s definitely not becoming of our resources and how we are about to spend taxpayers’ dollars.”
State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Republican, bristled at that suggestion.
“If the federal government was doing their job and securing our border, we would not have to be addressing this issue in Florida,” she said. “To me, it’s just that simple.”
The governor’s controversial flights could resume between now and mid-March after Vertol Systems, the contractor for the program that flew migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, filed an extension to its proposals for two additional migrant flights through March 15, according to new documents obtained by CNN.
CNN previously reported that Vertol Systems was paid $950,000 by the Florida Department of Transportation to fly migrants from Texas to Illinois and Delaware, however, those flights were never conducted. In total, Vertol Systems has received $1,565,000 from the state under DeSantis’ program.
Vertol Systems has repeatedly refused to comment on the migrant flights, or answer any of CNN’s inquiries about their contract.
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Paul Murphy contributed to this report.