South Florida migrant influx may not happen, federal officials now say

Seriously, what is going on here?
Immigrants from Central America seeking asylum board a bus in San Antonio, Texas, on April 2.  [Eric Gay | AP]
Immigrants from Central America seeking asylum board a bus in San Antonio, Texas, on April 2. [Eric Gay | AP]
Published May 17, 2019|Updated May 18, 2019

As South Florida’s sheriffs and mayors prepared Friday for a looming immigration crisis manufactured by the federal government, U.S. Customs and Border Protection moved to downplay the possibility that planes filled with border-crossing families will begin touching down soon in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

There are currently no imminent plans to send thousands of undocumented immigrants to South Florida from the inundated southwest border, CBP officials now say. Rather, they say, efforts to explain “contingency” plans to local sheriffs this week caused a misunderstanding that mushroomed into a statewide political crisis and underscored the haphazardness of Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

“That’s news to me,” Broward Mayor Mark Bogen said Friday, a full 24 hours after he went public saying that CBP had informed South Florida law enforcement that as many as 1,000 immigrants could be flown each month from the Mexican border. “No one informed us of that. I hope it’s true.”

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The belated clarity from President Donald Trumps’ administration could at least temporary quell a tempest that began Thursday after the chief of CBP’s Miami office briefed police in Palm Beach and Martin counties on plans to possibly fly families of undocumented immigrants from the southwest border to South Florida. But it’s too late to avoid a controversy that had Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — one of Trump’s most visible allies — criticizing the idea as out of step with actions taken in the state by the president’s own party.

“We cannot accommodate in Florida the dumping of unlawful migrants into our state. It will tax our resources, our schools, the health care, law enforcement, state agencies,” DeSantis said Friday, noting that the Legislature just passed a law banning so-called sanctuary cities.

“We’ve been very cooperative and to have this then put into certain communities here. I think it’s just something that we don’t ...” he said, pivoting quickly to a new point without finishing the thought.

DeSantis, who blamed the controversy on federal immigration policy coming from Congress, said he’d “investigated” the issue but had not spoken with the president.

Like most everyone in Florida, though, the governor seemed to be getting his information from Palm Beach County politicians and police officials, who’d been briefed this week by Customs and Border Patrol about plans to send as many as 1,000 immigrants to South Florida each month. The plan, they said, was necessitated by a surge of border crossings in the southwest U.S., where more than half a million people have sought to enter the country since October.

But details were scarce, and Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said he was told that immigrants were going to be flown into Palm Beach International Airport, processed at the port and then released into the community without food or shelter and with only a date to return for a hearing in immigration court. As many as 500 people could be coming each month in Broward, he said, and also in Palm Beach — where Trump has his Mar-a-Lago winter retreat.

In Martin County, Sheriff William Snyder said he was also informed by CBP’s chief in Miami that some of these immigrants would likely make their way to the small and predominantly Hispanic village of Indiantown, where some immigrants may have family.

“I don’t have enough information to be calm and I don’t have enough information to be apprehensive,” Snyder told the Miami Herald. “We’re out in Indiantown today talking with churches and food banks and NGOs, trying to see what are our resources.”

After learning of the Trump administration’s plans, South Florida officials worried about their ability to house, feed and prepare for what Palm Beach County Association of Chiefs of Police President Sean Brammer warned Thursday in a letter to the governor could be as many as 14,000 families dropped each year into South Florida. Bradshaw said Palm Beach County was already grappling with the measles and Hepatitis A, and was not prepared to safely accommodate an influx of immigrants with unknown backgrounds.

“We think it’s a dangerous plan,” said Bradshaw.

Bogen, the mayor of Broward County, accused Trump of making good on plans reported last month to move immigrants from the border and dump them in Democratic strongholds. Broward is the most Democratic county in Florida, a crucial swing state that could decide whether Trump remains president next year.

But, after saying nothing for more than 24 hours, CBP officials explained during a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon that, in fact, there were no scheduled flights to South Florida. A CBP official — who spoke to reporters on the condition that he not be named — said the agency is looking at possibly sending “non-criminal” immigrant families to South Florida as well as other parts of the country where CBP offices have the computer capacity to process immigration cases.

What flights and transfers are occurring, the official said, involve moving families back and forth from high-volume locations like Yuma, El Paso, and the Rio Grande Valley to CBP sub stations. Since October, CBP has made about 530,000 apprehensions at the southwest border, and on March 19 the agency began releasing families that aren’t dealing with criminal charges.

Those families, mostly from the violent Northern Triangle in Central America, are being moved by bus to Laredo or by plane to Del Rio. On Tuesday, there will be another plane from the Rio Grande Valley to San Diego. South Florida is not receiving any families.

But the area does remain a possible destination should a rush of desperate immigrants continue to pour from Central America, through Mexico and into the U.S. An average of 4,500 people have been apprehended each day over the last week, according to CBP, and old and outdated facilities are too strained to hold everyone. Some 180,000 people have been released on notices to appear since March 19, according to CBP.

There are no plans for federal assistance for those immigrants released into random communities, nor is there any expectation that those immigrants know anyone in the communities where they are sent, according to CBP.

Even after CBP moved to downplay the chances of ever flying immigrants to South Florida, confusion lingered. Two hours after reporters were briefed, a Palm Beach County spokesman sent out a press release saying that CBP “has plans to transport 270 immigrants, presumed to be undocumented, into Palm Beach County each week for an undetermined time period.”

“Details regarding this immigrant placement strategy from the federal government have not been provided to the county,” the statement said, “nor is there any evidence of a federal plan to address the basic needs of food, shelter and security for the arriving families and the impact on our community. Until we have official notice or order, we are closely monitoring the situation.”

The fact that no one knew or trusted information about what was happening for more than a day was largely blamed Friday on Trump’s scatter-shot immigration policies. Snyder, who attended Trump’s inauguration in 2017, called the fact reporters were calling him to explain the details of federal immigration policy was “sublimely disconcerting at best.”

“This directly can be related to the federal government’s utterly incoherent immigration policy,” he said. “That’s why we’re having this conversation. This does not make sense. If I ran my sheriff’s office like the federal government handles its immigration policy, the governor would remove me from office today.”

This story was written by David Smiley and Monique Madan. El Nuevo reporter Nora Gamez Torres, McClatchy DC reporter Franco Ordoñez, and Bradenton Herald reporter Sara Nealeigh contributed.