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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

After Martha's Vineyard, lawmakers give DeSantis $10 million more to move migrants

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after being sworn in for his second term during an inauguration ceremony at the Old Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Lynne Sladky
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after being sworn in for his second term during an inauguration ceremony at the Old Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla.

As Florida dedicates more money to transport migrants from other states, advocates say there isn't enough oversight to make sure transport is done legally and that migrants are relocated voluntarily.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Fewer than five months after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration flew about 50 migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, Mass. – a move that ended up costing the state around $1.5 million and is the subject of legal challenges – the Republican supermajority in the legislature has granted the administration another $10 million to transport migrants from other states.

In a party-line vote, state GOP lawmakers passed the bill that gives the state broad authority to find and move migrants in other states to so-called immigrant "sanctuary cities" outside Florida.

The legislation contains no specifics on how state contractors would identify migrants, provide information to them about their destinations or whether the state would coordinate with officials in cities where immigrants are transported. "It shows you how this is all just a mere political stunt," says immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, who is based in Miami.

The continued question: Is it legal?

Kurzban, who has practiced immigration law for decades, says he thinks the program violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents state and local governments from interfering in federal law.

Little is known about how DeSantis' migrant transport program would operate, as the bill includes no specifics about whether state officials will work with federal immigration authorities. That creates a problem, Kurzban said. "It's clearly an area of law that's determined by the federal government."

The measure gives the state Division of Emergency Management, which is overseen by the governor, rule-making authority to transport "inspected unauthorized aliens," a term not found in the Immigration and Nationality Act, according to Kurzban.

Under federal immigration law, migrants who are paroled into the U.S. are required to appear in court for a hearing at a later date. Francisco Symphorien-Saavedra, an immigration attorney based in Orlando, Fla., says that moving asylum seekers away from the jurisdiction where they have a scheduled hearing could disrupt that process. "To what extent is the state of Florida going to provide advanced notice to customs officials that these people are moving?"

With little power, Democrats' resistance failed

Democrats tried change the bill to ensure migrants are voluntarily relocated and informed about where they're going, how relocation could affect their immigration case and what's waiting for them when they arrive at the destination. The word "voluntary" doesn't appear in the bill, even though Republicans have said that they'll only move immigrants who agree to relocate.

"Migrants are human beings and are deserving of respect and dignity, they can't give permission or consent if they don't understand what they're being asked," said state Rep. Jennifer "Rita" Harris, a Democrat from Orlando, speaking on the House floor Thursday.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, another Orlando Democrat, filed an amendment to try to prevent the program from becoming "a money-making operation to people affiliated with political offices," she said while speaking on the House floor. "It's a warranted amendment because this already happened."

Back in September, the DeSantis administration awarded a contract to Vertol Systems to charter the flights from Texas to Martha's Vineyard.

Republicans' reasoning

Lawmakers passed the measure during an emergency special session held about a week after DeSantis proposed $12 million in next year's budget to expand the program to transporting immigrants outside Florida. DeSantis and other Republican state leaders say the sharp increase in the number of people crossing the U.S. southern border justifies spending more money on the program; however, preliminary data released for January show a sharp decline in the number of migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally.

"We can just sit here and do nothing about it, or we can actually stand up and say 'whatever tools we have at our disposal, we are going to use,' " DeSantis said last week.

Republicans have said the intent is to identify immigrants crossing into border states, such as Texas, who intend to move to Florida and, instead, offer them flights elsewhere.

"We have to identify the people who have the will and desire to come to Florida," said Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia who sponsored the legislation. "Then you're making the offer to say, 'Hey, Florida is not a sanctuary state. If you want to go to a sanctuary state, we'd be more than happy to drop you off there.' "

Ingoglia says the goal of the legislation is to send immigrants "to areas that have sanctuary policies so that they can get the services that they need," instead of welcoming them to the Sunshine State. "There is a cost associated with that in the state of Florida."

And he defines success as getting the federal government to do more to reduce the number of immigrants crossing the U.S. border. "I think the big thing is to show people that we are serious that the federal government needs to get their act together and solve this problem."

Martha's Vineyard lawsuits continue

A federal class action lawsuit brought by immigrants and an immigrant rights group remains ongoing.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County, has also filed a lawsuit over the move. His complaint argues DeSantis violated state law when he transported immigrants from Texas because lawmakers only gave permission to relocate those who were already in Florida.

The bill Republicans passed Friday approved the previous payments for relocating migrants from Texas.

"Our governor broke the law," said Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando on the House floor Friday. "And instead of fighting the law, he's changing the law."

Copyright 2023 WFSU

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.