Gov. Ron DeSantis’ fight with the Biden administration over immigration has led to a $1.6 million state-funded border mission in Texas, a lawsuit against the federal government and an executive order enlisting the state’s law enforcement agency to collect information on “potential illegal immigrants” relocated to Florida by the federal government.
Now, the Republican governor wants $8 million to create a new program that would allow the state to contract with private companies to transport “unauthorized aliens” out of Florida.
The proposed program, which the governor wants to pay for with interest accrued from federal funds, and a “series” of incoming legislative bills that he says will fight “back against the Biden border crisis” are the latest battle lines drawn by a governor who appears to be drumming up a potential challenge against President Joe Biden in 2024.
“One of the priorities that we’ve been working on for many months now and we’ll continue to work with the Legislature when they get back is dealing with the fallout from the reckless border policies of the Biden administration,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Jacksonville on Friday.
DeSantis has said that Florida should be able to use buses to transport migrants to other parts of the country, like Delaware, a state Biden calls home.
“It’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it is true,” DeSantis said Friday. “If you sent them to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard or some of these places, that border would be secure the next day.” Martha’s Vineyard is an island south of Cape Cod, Mass.
DeSantis and other Florida Republicans have long seized on immigration policy as a political wedge issue. Friday’s announcements, which he framed as resisting Biden’s immigration policies, add to a list of official actions taken by the DeSantis administration that are being used to mobilize the conservative base as the governor gears up for his reelection in 2022.
But some Democrats see the proposed taxpayer-funded immigration program as another example of using the governor’s mansion to boost his political ambitions.
“This is basically $8 million for his political campaign,” Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani said in response to the budget decision. “There are some serious human rights concerns. Are you going to put someone in a car and drive them to Delaware? ... State officials are not trained on any type of immigration enforcement.”
Few details have emerged on exactly how the proposed immigration program would work or how the state would plan to track immigrants and transport them out of the state. The Florida Legislature would need to approve the funding and the details before such a program can be in operation. The governor’s office has not responded to requests seeking comment on specifics.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department said that the agency does not pre-approve the specific use of the funds Florida is tapping into to fund the immigration program. But, the spokesperson added, Treasury monitors expenses and expects governments to repay misused funds if they violate the terms of the Interim Final Rule, which dictates the purpose of the federal funds that are being proposed in the budget.
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The new proposal adds to an executive order signed in September in which DeSantis enlisted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to track down flights coming into Jacksonville that he has suggested are full of “potential illegal immigrants” who have crossed the U.S. southern border.
FDLE has said the information about the flights has not “developed into a criminal investigation,” but at the news conference on Friday, DeSantis and his public safety czar, Larry Keefe, suggested that the governor’s actions would “protect families” by combating “criminal cartels and smugglers.” The governor told reporters the flights stopped six weeks ago.
In the September executive order, DeSantis also asked several different state agencies, like the Agency for Health Care Administration, to research and publish the amount of state and local funds they’ve spent treating immigrants who entered illegally. The agency told the Miami Herald last month that the information would be published on its website once the agency finalizes its methodology to calculate the resources used by the state.
The actions from the DeSantis administration stem from the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants into Del Rio, Texas, in September — many of whom were Haitians who had traveled from different South American countries. The sudden surge of people, just a month after a deadly earthquake killed over 2,200 people in southwest Haiti, overwhelmed border officials and led to bipartisan backlash on the inhumane treatment of Black migrants.
For several months now, DeSantis has been appearing on Fox News and holding press conferences in Florida to talk about what he says are “clandestine” flights with migrants coming into Florida in the middle of the night with no notice from the federal government.
The governor’s office received that information from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which has relied on a “reliable and confidential” source to compile a list of 78 flights that have landed at the Jacksonville airport. The source, according to DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw, works in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
According to a document FDLE provided to the Herald, the flights carried an unknown number of passengers from April to October.
The state has not independently confirmed the immigration status or identities of any of the passengers, but the DeSantis administration is suggesting they are “potential illegal immigrants” and that the information developed by FDLE is part of an initiative that will help the state “understand the threats that might be coming into Florida such as human trafficking, violent gang members or drug traffickers.”
Several Biden administration officials said that DeSantis’ claims about the flights are “unsubstantiated.” Immigration experts say the flights DeSantis is referring to have long been used by the federal government to relocate asylum seekers and other migrants from the border.
DeSantis and others have focused on one particular case in Jacksonville of a 24-year-old Honduran migrant, Yery Noel Medina Ulloa, who is accused of second-degree murder in the killing of 46-year-old Francisco Javier Cuellar. Police say Medina Ulloa, who is undocumented, initially lied about his name and said he was 17, a detail DeSantis says is evidence that not all unaccompanied minors are actually minors.
On Friday, DeSantis further suggested that not all minors should be treated equally. “When I was serving in Iraq, we considered like a 16- or 17-year-old Iraqi to be a military-age male,” he said. “They’re technically minors in that respect, but you have people that are more advanced.”
DeSantis has made Media Ulloa’s case a flash point in the immigration debate, and his office has helped amplify it. On the eve of a press conference in which DeSantis first highlighted Medina Ulloa’s case, Pushaw sent an email to Jacksonville media at 9:30 p.m. inviting television stations to cover Medina Ulloa’s first court appearance.
“I wanted to let you know in case you want to cover this development, because the arraignment is tomorrow morning, and cameras are allowed in the courtroom,” said Pushaw in the Nov. 3 email. The exchange was first reported by the Florida Times-Union.
DeSantis had previously threatened to punish private transportation companies that helped the federal government transport migrants into Florida. On Nov. 9, he told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that the state was looking at how to “fight back against contractors,” including denying them “access to the Florida market,” increasing their taxes and creating other disincentives.
On Friday, the governor appeared to follow through on that promise and said he intends to prioritize a bill that would “hold accountable private entities that knowingly or recklessly assist the Biden administration in resettling illegal immigrants into Florida.”
He said he has a list of companies that have aided the federal government and wants to target those that are “involved in facilitating” illegal migration into the state, but it is unclear how that would be defined in statute.
No bills have been filed yet, and when asked for details on the proposal, the governor’s office released a graphic with bullet points that repeat the broad statements the governor made at the news conference.
“This is not about vilification, it’s about verification,” said Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry during the press conference on Friday.
The flights through Jacksonville are not releasing non-U.S. citizens into Florida, but are simply one of “various transportation modes” in the process of uniting unaccompanied migrant children either with family members or with vetted sponsors, one Biden official said. Jacksonville’s airport happens to be one convenient and sizable hub that can host flight arrivals, but the same process is taking place across the United States.
Despite his office saying it does not have access to flight information or details on the operation, a Health and Human Services official said the Office of Refugee Resettlement briefed the governor’s team in July and has offered multiple briefings since.
“It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be swiftly unified with a parent or a vetted sponsor,” a Health and Human Services spokesperson said. “As part of the unification process, Office of Refugee Resettlement facilitates travel for the children in the agency’s care to their sponsors or other care providers in the most expeditious way to quickly and safely unite them with parents and sponsors. Office of Refugee Resettlement has policies in place to maintain the privacy, security and well-being of minors in our care.”
“We continue to reach out to the governor’s office to provide all information possible as we continue to prioritize the safety of the children in our care and carry out our mission to unify them with their parents or vetted sponsors throughout the country,” the spokesperson said.
Another senior administration official told the McClatchy Washington Bureau that DeSantis’ administration was “villainizing and mischaracterizing” the operation and noted that governors, as a general rule, would not have a say over these sorts of federal immigration actions.
“This is a very inappropriate villainization and victimization of migrants when this is literally just the normal process,” the official said. “These aren’t people being released. This is all just normal processing in what are standard immigration pathways for a variety of immigration groups, in this case specific to unaccompanied minors.”
Randy McGrorty, executive director at Catholic Legal Services in Miami, works with asylum seekers in South Florida to provide services for migrants building a legal case to stay in the U.S.
He says that while his clinic has seen a spike in cases since January and since the summer crisis in Del Rio, Texas, most of the parolees who arrive in Florida after crossing the border continue to be overwhelmingly from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua — not just Haiti.
“He [DeSantis] was responding to the Del Rio crisis, but what he did was attack Cuban parolees, many of whom have very strong asylum cases,” said McGrorty. “He says parole is not a lawful status. It is. You can get work authorization if you’re on parole. It’s a lawful status.”
McGrorty, however, does concede that the situation in Del Rio likely contributed to a clerical disaster with notices to appear before an immigration court, a document that lets migrants know when and where they should show up for a court hearing on their case.
He said that in the past month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ramped up its efforts to mail about 130,000 notices to appear to the migrants’ last known address.
“They’re being released with all kinds of paperwork, different documents. Sometimes they don’t even have an alien number, which is key to everything in their lives,” said McGrorty, adding the mail effort to reach migrants who’ve been released is “a big undertaking.”
In a memo published by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Nov. 2, the federal agency explained that, because of overcrowding concerns, they relied on notices to report, a faster way to process migrants that includes collecting biometric and biographical information. But that method is different from notices to appear, which are more time consuming and officially jump start immigration proceedings. The memo directed border agents to stop using notices to report, and instead outlined other ways of processing migrants at the border if authorities are again strapped for resources in the future.
The border agency says that those migrants released on notices to report were directed to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for “further processing, including for an NTA (notice to appear), as appropriate.”
Meanwhile, McGrorty says his nonprofit has set up a pop-up clinic twice a week at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in the heart of the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami to connect with Haitian migrants who need representation in their asylum cases.
In the immigration lawsuit filed by Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody, the state uses several articles published by National Review to make the case that the notices to appear essentially amount to an “honor system” that does not ensure migrants show up for their court hearings.
A figure cited in Moody’s complaint — that 80 percent of migrants on parole do not show up to their court hearings — has been debunked as a distorted reference to statements made by the former Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan in 2019.
“We are going to be doing more because he (apparently a reference to President Biden) seems to be offloading people in the middle of the night without telling us what’s going on,” DeSantis warned last month during a press conference. “We want to protect folks, and we’re going to have some announcements on that coming up very soon.”
McClatchy DC staff writers Bryan Lowry and Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.