Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate whether families, local governments and international criminal organizations are conspiring to illegally bring migrants to Florida.
“The purpose of the grand jury will be to investigate individuals and organizations that are actively working with foreign nationals, drug cartels and coyotes to illegally smuggle minors, some as young as 2 years old, across the border and into Florida,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Pensacola.
It’s a rare use of a statewide grand jury, which has only been impaneled 20 times in more than 40 years. But it comes as DeSantis draws more attention to the issue of immigration as he seeks re-election in November. The issue has become a key political focus in Republican campaign strategies in an attempt to rebuke President Joe Biden’s policies at the border, which DeSantis says have been an “abject failure.”
In the last year, DeSantis has sent state law enforcement officers to the southern border in Texas, cracked down on Florida shelters that house and care for migrants children on behalf of the federal government and asked the Legislature for $12 million to launch a program to relocate migrants to other parts of the country.
At the news conference on Friday, DeSantis also said the state has quietly assembled a police force with state and local law enforcement officers with the goal of targeting drug smugglers and migrants who are carrying guns illegally. The governor then signed into law a measure that aims to disrupt the federal resettlement of migrants, including unaccompanied minors, in Florida.
The move to assemble a grand jury, however, could have statewide implications. DeSantis said he wants the grand jury — which could issue subpoenas and indictments — to have jurisdiction over the entire state. He wants the presiding judge to be in the 10th Circuit, which includes Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties, because of its “central” location.
If the court approves the grand jury, it would be the second time DeSantis has had a request for a grand jury accepted. In 2019, he asked for a grand jury to investigate school safety measures in response to the Marjory Stoneman High School mass shooting in Parkland.
Families, local government targeted
This time, DeSantis is making the case that the state has a “public interest” in having a grand jury examine whether Florida needs to take further action on immigration. The request emphasizes the need to examine how migrant children are coming into Florida and possibly being endangered by “illicit actors.”
DeSantis also wants the grand jury to look at whether “parents, guardians, or other family members of unaccompanied alien children” have conspired with transnational criminal organizations or other groups to smuggle, traffic or endanger migrant children.
“Because the foregoing activities occur or have effects across the state, a statewide grand jury is an appropriate vehicle to examine these matters, to identify any deficiencies in current laws and enforcement methods, and to recommend new or revised laws and enforcement methods,” according to the DeSantis administration petition.
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The grand jury, DeSantis said, would examine whether local governments are violating the state’s immigration laws, including a ban on so-called sanctuary cities, which is currently the subject of legal challenges.
DeSantis said the police force led by the Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and county sheriff’s offices is meant to target drug, human and weapons smuggling. He said it has been operating in northwest Florida and that the operation has already led to arrests of people who were in the country illegally.