TALLAHASSEE — For the last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been complaining about the federal government dropping migrants into Florida without notice.
But on Friday, he said he couldn’t find enough of them in the state, so that’s why his administration decided to send 48 migrants from Texas to the tiny Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard this week.
“What we found is we haven’t seen any major movements of people into Florida like big caravans,” he said during a news conference in Daytona Beach.
So, DeSantis said, the state’s contractor went to Texas to try to identify people “that are trying to come to Florida, and then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions, and so they went from Texas to Florida to Martha’s Vineyard in the flight.”
Friday’s comments were the most detailed to date about his decision to ship migrant men, women and children to the wealthy enclave of Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday, sparking sharp condemnation and a firestorm of controversy. Some migrants have said they were misled. Local officials said they were given no warning.
DeSantis’ administration has been silent on many of the details. But the governor on Friday said the program, which is being performed by a contractor, was strictly voluntary, and he said it was “false” that migrants didn’t know where they were going.
“The folks that are contracted (for the program), not only do the people give them a release form to sign, they actually give them a packet, and in that packet included a map of Martha’s Vineyard,” he said, to audience laughter. “So it was obvious that that’s where they were going.”
DeSantis has long complained about illegal immigration and has railed against President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. In news conferences and on Fox News, he has talked about “clandestine” flights with migrants coming into Florida in the middle of the night. His office said last year that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement relied on a “reliable and confidential” source in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to compile a list of 78 flights that had landed in the Jacksonville airport.
For his 2019 State of the State address, DeSantis invited parents whose son was killed in a 2007 car crash caused by a person who was in the country illegally.
On Friday, DeSantis said that migrants are moving into Florida in cars a few people at a time, which makes them difficult to find.
“We’ve had people in Texas for months, trying to figure out how are these people getting into Florida? What’s the movement?” he said. “And the reality is, 40% of them say they want to go to Florida.”
He said the state decided to set up a program to identify people wanting to come to Florida.
“What we’re trying to do is profile, ‘OK, who do you think is going to try to get to Florida? And if they get in a car with two other people, there’s no way we’re going to be able to detect that. So you’re trying to identify who’s most likely to come.”
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DeSantis said if he could, he would rather send migrants “back to Mexico or back to the home country.” Most, if not all, of the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard were from Venezuela.
The two flights to Martha’s Vineyard stopped at the Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, in the Panhandle, to refuel, but nobody boarded the plane during the stop, according to an official at Emerald Coast Aviation, the fixed base operator that runs the airport.
Transporting migrants from Texas appears to conflict with the language passed in the state budget this year.
Under the budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, the Department of Transportation can spend up to $12 million “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The budget passed with near-unanimous support in the Legislature this year, with only three Democrats voting against it.
Legislative leaders have been silent on the use of the money since Wednesday. Spokespeople for the House speaker, Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and the Senate president, Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, did not respond to questions about the spending. The two Appropriations Committee chairpersons who set the budget, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, did not respond to requests for comment.
Last week, the state paid Vertol Systems Company Inc., based in Hillsboro, Oregon, $615,000 to carry out the program.
DeSantis said Friday that he’ll “spend every penny” of the $12 million assigned to the Department of Transportation.
DeSantis said Friday that Biden was encouraging migrants to come to the United States, then “basically cutting these people loose and leaving (them) high and dry.”
An attorney for the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard said U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials allegedly falsified addresses on the migrants’ immigration paperwork and said they could change them upon arriving in Massachusetts.
“Agents apparently chose random homeless shelters all across the country from Washington to Florida to list the migrants’ mailing addresses, even when told by the migrants that they had no address in the U.S.,” said Rachel Self, a Boston immigration attorney who was assisting with the migrants’ cases.
The group of migrants, Self said, were being asked to appear in jurisdictions near homeless shelters all across the country as early as next Monday.
Times/Herald staff writer Romy Ellenbogen and Herald staff writer Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.