State lawmakers consider giving DeSantis OK to transport migrants from anywhere in US

The proposal is expected to come up during a special legislative session next week.
An immigrant family brought to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration heads toward a bus that will help relocate them to a military base on nearby Cape Cod, Mass.
An immigrant family brought to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration heads toward a bus that will help relocate them to a military base on nearby Cape Cod, Mass. [ RON SCHLOERB | AP ]
Published Feb. 3|Updated Feb. 23

TALLAHASSEE — In the face of several lawsuits challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ covert operation to relocate migrants from the Texas border to Massachusetts, the governor’s office now wants lawmakers to revise the law to remove potentially unconstitutional provisions and give the governor more authority to use Florida taxpayer funds to transport migrants around the country.

The proposed legislation would create a new statute establishing the “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” within the governor’s office that would allow the state to use taxpayer funds this fiscal year to transport people who have entered the country, been processed and released by the U.S. government pending a final resolution of their immigration status.

If approved by lawmakers during a special session next week, DeSantis would have expanded authority to use $10 million between now and the end of June to relocate migrants anywhere in the country. The measure also allows the governor to potentially access as much as $500 million in emergency funds because he signed an executive order declaring an immigration emergency in January.

Related: Florida lawmakers to hold special session to consider state-run board for Disney tax district

DeSantis, who is eyeing a run for president in 2024, would then have access to tens of millions of dollars to transport migrants anywhere in the country if the migrants volunteer to be relocated and show documentation that they have been processed and released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Florida taxpayers would foot the travel costs.

The governor has asked for another $12 million for the program in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The large sums of money could allow the governor to ramp up efforts that in the past have helped him draw national attention and support from Republican voters.

It would be a departure from what the Legislature approved less than a year ago when DeSantis first sought to transport migrants out of the state. At the moment, state law specifies that migrants have to be relocated “from this state” — a mandate the state has not followed. The new language would allow DeSantis to transport migrants “within the United States.”

The proposal will be considered during a special session that will also address legislation to reverse their decision to dissolve Walt Disney World’s special taxing district and instead approve a state board to oversee it. Lawmakers will also be asked to fix problems with a state law relating to college athletes who enter into promotional contracts and to adopt legislation clarifying the role of the state in prosecuting election fraud, according to memos from Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner. Lawmakers will also address hurricane recovery and two local water control districts.

The case for the program

The proposed legislation, which was drafted by the governor’s office, states that the program is necessary to “protect Floridians from the impacts of the border crisis.”

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“Without such actions, detrimental effects may be experienced in Florida, including increased crime, diminished economic opportunities and wages for American workers, and burdens on the education and health care systems,” the bill states.

The same argument has been made in a federal lawsuit Florida brought against the Biden administration, but the state’s ability to prove harm during a four-day trial last month remains undetermined. The lawsuit and the proposed legislation are a continuation of a yearslong back and forth between DeSantis and the Biden administration over immigration issues.

The proposed bill, however, could also undercut ongoing lawsuits against the DeSantis administration.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit accusing Florida’s governor of illegally using taxpayer funds to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts last September.

He said the proposed bill is an effort to render his lawsuit moot and “to expand (the governor’s) authority because now it no longer requires there to be a direct nexus for Florida.”

But by replacing the law that required that the money be used to fly migrants out of Florida with a provision that allows the state to relocate migrants anywhere in the country, “it’s a bigger issue,’’ Pizzo said. “Now he (DeSantis) can spend money on relocation efforts to Idaho if he feels like it.”

He said a bill has been drafted for the special session to replace the flawed legislation passed last year.

Florida’s migrant flight history

Florida has paid $1.5 million to a politically connected Destin-based company to fly two planes of mostly Venezuelan migrants, including children, to Massachusetts from Texas. Florida tried to send a second flight, but after intense media scrutiny and an investigation by a Texas sheriff, the flight was called off.

Records obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability, the Miami Herald, and other news organizations have shed light on the covert operation involving the governor’s staff, who worked with the vendor, Vertol Systems Co., to get around the budget requirement that Florida use the money to export Florida migrants — not those living in some other state.

The flights have been denounced as a political stunt by the governor’s critics, and at the same time helped DeSantis cement his stature as a conservative stalwart among Republican voters as he eyes a potential run for the presidency in 2024.

A trial in Pizzo’s lawsuit was scheduled for Jan. 30 but was postponed because of the judge’s illness. The governor’s office filed a motion for summary judgment to delay the case for another 40 days.

Pizzo said that the Biden administration should intervene and tell Florida to stop getting involved in a federal function — immigration and detention — because that activity violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that federal law takes precedence over conflicting state laws.

“I’d make the argument that the federal government has full purview and authority over immigration, not you guys,” he said. By taking 49 migrants who are seeking asylum in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, the state of Florida made them unavailable for federal immigration proceedings, he argued. “It is tantamount to making them unavailable” and “comparable to witness tampering. You effectively render them unavailable to appear when necessary in a Texas court.”

Pizzo argues that the 2022-23 state appropriations law that financed the controversial flights improperly used the budget to create a substantial new program instead of authorizing it through a separate law. Under long-standing principles of the Florida Constitution, substantial policies and programs must be first authorized in a separate law so that they can be widely discussed and reviewed by lawmakers.

A class-action lawsuit is pending in federal court in Massachusetts against DeSantis, Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue and people who helped recruit the immigrants in Texas. Recently, a Leon County circuit court judge dismissed one lawsuit alleging that the Florida Department of Transportation and a contractor did not fully comply with public records requests relating to the migrant flights, but another lawsuit in which another judge ordered the state to release records it tried to withhold about the operation is pending appeal.

When repeatedly asked about whether the flights were conducted legally under state law, legislators have dodged the questions. Last month, the Senate committee charged with overseeing the Florida Department of Transportation budget refrained from asking Perdue, the department secretary, about the covert flights.