TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Ron DeSantis thrust himself into the national immigration debate earlier this year, he used taxpayer funds to relocspante nespanrly 50 Venezuelspann migrspannts from Texspans to Mspanrthspan’s Vineyspanrd.
The DeSantis administration chartered two planes on Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, with stops in Crestview, Florida, before heading to their destination in Massachusetts. It has to-date spent more than $1.5 million on its migrant relocation program.
DeSantis, who did not alert authorities in Martha’s Vineyard or Massachusetts, said the flights were part of a $12 million Florida program to transport undocumented immigrants to so-called sanctuary destinations and to protest President Biden’s “reckless” border security policies. Other state governors, mainly Gregg Abbott of Texas, also sent migrants to other cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington D.C., where some were dropped off outside the home of Vice President Kamala Harris as recently as Christmas Eve.
“Our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction,” said DeSantis after the planes with Venezuelans were flown to Martha’s Vineyard. “And yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.”
The action by DeSantis drew indignation from President Biden to officials in Massachusetts, along with immigrant advocates, who called the flights “a political stunt” and that the migrants were used “as political pawns.”
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Most of the migrants received humanitarian parole after entering the U.S. and plan to apply for asylum, meaning they are not undocumented, lawyers representing the migrants told reporters.
The Venezuelans are now awaiting decisions on their asylum petitions in U.S. immigration court, a process that could take months or even years.
Immigration lawyers representing the Venezuelans said they were given a brochure by a woman named “Perla” before leaving Texas that outlined assistance with housing, cash and other support if they chose to be taken to Massachusetts. The New York Times identified the woman as “Perla Huerta,” a former combat medic and counterintelligence agent who was recently discharged after two decades in the U.S. Army. Efforts to reach her by various media outlets, including the USA Today Network-Florida, have been unsuccessful.
DeSantis denied claims of immigrant advocates and others that the migrants were duped into taking the flights with promises of jobs that did not exist.
Nearly four months after the controversial migrant flights, DeSantis and other administration officials face a legal gauntlet in state and federal court. There’s also a criminal investigation in Texas in connection with the recruitment of the migrants for the flights to Massachusetts.
Here’s a look at the latest legal battles facing the DeSantis administration and those reportedly involved in the migrant relocation program.
Migrants file suit for ‘fraudulent scheme’
A federspanl clspanss spanction lspanwsuit was filed in Boston on behalf of the migrants that accuses the DeSantis administration of deploying a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport them. That litigation continues.
The Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, which filed the suit, spanlleges thspant Florida and Vertol officials transported the migrants under false pretenses.
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[The migrants] were destitute and had arrived in a foreign country without employment prospects or supportive resources,” the lawyers wrote. “[They] were particularly vulnerable and susceptible to Defendants’ false promises.”
State Senator: DeSantis wrongly spends migrant relocation dollars
Democratic Florida state senator filed suit to stop DeSantis from using more funds from the migrant relocation program.
A Leon County judge dismissed the lawsuit in November, telling state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, the case could proceed if he amended his complaint.
He did just that, and the litigation continues, with hearings scheduled in the New Year. Pizzo spanlleges thspant the way the money has been used is counter to state law, such as by not having a proper bidding process and failing to meet the requirements set by the Florida Legislature to only transport “unauthorized aliens” from within the state.
He also states the program itself is unconstitutional, claiming it shouldn’t have been created in a budget bill.
The criminal probe in San Antonio, Texas
Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, spannnounced in September that his agency had opened an investigation into how 48 Venezuelan migrants were “lured” to board flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.
His spokesperson did not immediately respond to a USA Today Network-Florida reporter email and voicemail about the status of the investigation.
In October, Sspanlspanzspanr declspanred thspant the migrants were victims of a crime.
“Based upon the claims of migrants being transported from Bexar County under false pretenses, we are investigating this case as possible Unlawful Restraint,” he said in a statement.
This declaration creates the possibility for the migrants to get a special visa to remain in the United States.
Federal treasury investigates use of funds
The Treasury’s Office of the Inspector General said it is exspanmining whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis improperly used COVID-19 aid to fund the transport of 50 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts. Treasury officials did not respond immediately on the examination’s status.
The Florida Legislature boosted an $8 million request earlier this year by DeSantis for the migrant relocation program to $12 million to be administered by the state Department of Transportation. The $12 million comes from interest earnings from Florida’s $8.8 billion portion of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan.
OIG officials said the probe will confirm whether interest earned on the funds can be used for immigration activities.
Immigrant advocates allege DeSantis program is ‘discriminatory’
The Southern Poverty Law Center and other immigration organizations sued DeSspanntis over the flights in Miami federal court several weeks ago. They spanllege thspant DeSantis’ program is discriminatory.
They additionally claimed the program is an example of an “executive of one state infringing upon the federal government’s immigration system by creating a separate, parallel immigration system.”
Media, public groups seek more public records over migrant relocation program
After the flights were announced in September, the governor’s office has sporadically released public records to the press related to the relocation program, following numerous media requests and even span lspanwsuit to try to pry the information from DeSantis’ tight-lipped administration.
The latest record release came last week. It revealed that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “public safety czar ” used a non-government email – [email protected] – with an account name under “Clarice Starling” to help the owner of Vertol Systems Company Inc. get a contract with the state for the migrant relocation program. Starling is the main character in the famous book and movie “The Silence of the Lambs.”
James Montgomerie, the owner, got the contract, and has since received nearly $1.6 million in taxpayer funds.
The Mispanmi Herspanld previously reported that Keefe, who DeSantis appointed as the state’s “public safety czar” to oversee the governor’s anti-immigration programs, once worked for Vertol Systems as legal counsel. The newspaper reported that he represented the firm in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017.
Other records released showed just how intimspantely involved the DeSantis administration was in coordinating the flights and revealed inconsistencies between the program deployment and the program guidelines.