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DeSantis’ defense of Martha’s Vineyard flights prompts more questions

DeSantis’ administration is only allowed to “transport unauthorized aliens from this state,” according to budget language approved by state lawmakers this year.
Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of immigrants to Martha's Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration's failed border policies. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP)
Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of immigrants to Martha's Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration's failed border policies. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP) [ RAY EWING/VINEYARD GAZETTE | AP ]
Published Sep. 15|Updated Sep. 16

TALLAHASSEE — A day after Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for sending undocumented immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the governor suggested at a news conference Thursday that his efforts prevented those migrants from ever making it into Florida.

“One of the reasons why we want to transfer [people is] because, obviously it’s expensive if people are coming here, you got to pay taxes, social services, and all these other things,” DeSantis said at a Thursday news conference in Niceville, which is just north of Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle.

If Florida can send people to so-called sanctuary cities instead, “Well, then the chance that they come to Florida goes down dramatically,” he said.

His comments raise questions about Florida’s plans to relocate undocumented immigrants, in protest of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. DeSantis’ administration is only allowed to “transport unauthorized aliens from this state,” according to budget language approved by state lawmakers this year.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond when asked whether the migrants had moved to Florida or whether the state-funded program helped transport migrants from another state. DeSantis provided no details about the flights during a Thursday news conference.

DeSantis’ office took credit for sending two planes with migrants to the summer resort island south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on Wednesday night. Massachusetts state and local officials, and migrants, meanwhile, have told some news outlets that they had been in Texas prior to boarding the flight.

About 50 undocumented immigrants, who appear mostly to be from Venezuela, touched down in Martha’s Vineyard in two separate flights, one at 3:12 p.m. and another at 3:30, and made stops in Crestview, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, according to the flight tracking company, FlightAware. The two flights operated by Ultimate JetCharters, which DeSantis said he chartered, originated from Texas, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport director confirmed to 7News BostonWHDH.

Related: Venezuelans slam DeSantis after migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott denied any involvement in chartering the flights to Martha’s Vineyard.

“Our office has had conversations with Gov. DeSantis and his team about supporting our busing strategy to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed and overrun border communities. Though we were not involved in these initial planes to Martha’s Vineyard, we appreciate the support in responding to this national crisis and helping Texans,” Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Under the $12 million program approved earlier this year by Florida lawmakers at DeSantis’ urging, the Department of Transportation was supposed to hire a private contractor “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The money set aside for those contracts came from interest the state earned from federal COVID relief dollars.

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The Department of Transportation has not said which company it contracted with to perform the work, although such contracts are required to be posted online within 30 days under state law. Generally, a state contract would show who the state is paying to perform a service, how much it is costing Florida taxpayers and any other requirements the state sets for the vendor.

According to language in the state budget, the program applies to “unauthorized aliens” who are unlawfully present in the United States. It cites a specific federal law that says the term “alien” means “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” That can include different categories, such as legal immigrants who are in the country with visas, and even some who have received refugee or asylum status.

“If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida is a good place, our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go into a sanctuary jurisdiction,” DeSantis said Thursday. “And yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you, to be able to go to greener pastures.”

He compared it to a longstanding federal program to relocate asylum seekers and other migrants from the border.

“Biden would fly people in the middle of the night, dump them all across this country,” DeSantis said. “There was no warning on any of this. They’re doing it and they’re farming people out all around.”

Massachusetts state Rep. Dylan Fernandez, a Democrat who represents Martha’s Vineyard, said on Wednesday that migrants were “told they would be given housing and jobs.” He added that “Islanders were given no notice but are coming together as a community to support them.”

When announcing his proposal in December to spend money to move migrants out of the state, DeSantis threatened to send them to Martha’s Vineyard.

“If you sent them to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard or some of these places, that border would be secure the next day,” he said at the time.

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