Senate panel backs Gov. DeSantis, OKs sanctions for participating in asylum airlift

Air and ground carriers would be barred from state contracts

By: - January 24, 2022 7:36 pm

Jacksonville International Airport. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Syliva Munoz pleaded with members of a Florida Senate committee on Monday to reject Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest initiative against immigrants, including underage asylum seekers.

Munoz, 75, came to the United States in 1961 as an unaccompanied minor under the Pedro Pan airlift from Cuba. She was among a number of people with that experience who wrote letters, which representatives of social-justice and faith-based organizations read aloud during Judiciary Committee hearings on DeSantis’ plans.

“I am saddened by the realization that the Florida Legislat[ure] is pushing forward Gov. DeSantis’ xenophobic agenda. The unaccompanied children coming to the U.S.A. now are no different from the ones who came and benefited from this program in the 1960s. Actually, their situation is worse! We were not being killed; these children are!” she wrote.

“I beg you to put yourself in the shoes of these families. Wouldn’t you, as a parent, try to save your child from gangs, violence, or death? I’m sure you would as my parents did, sending their children one by one until we were all safe. The common carrier provision of SB 1808 would prevent children from being housed in the same shelters that housed the Peter Pan children. It would prevent children, just like the Cuban children of Peter Pan, from being reunited with their parents.”

It was to no avail.

On a vote of 6-3, the panel sided with the governor on the bill to which Munoz referred, SB 1808, which would withhold state contracts and economic incentives to companies providing transportation services under the Biden administration’s resettlement plan for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States.

Speakers including Ida Eskamani of Florida Rising and Florida Immigrant Coalition argued that the kids at issue “are not a threat to our community; they’re a gift to be cherished.”

Republicans were more focused on anecdotes about crimes allegedly committed by undocumented people, including Yery Noel Medina Ulloa, a 24-year-old from Honduras who lied to border agents that he was a minor and was later accused of stabbing to death a benefactor in Jacksonville.

Republican Aaron Bean addresses the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 24, 2024. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Sen Aaron Bean, a Republican representing Nassau and part of Duval counties, is sponsoring the bill on DeSantis’ behalf in the upper chamber; a similar measure is pending in the state House.

Bean declared that, over the past 12 months, at least 78 chartered flights had brought “illegal aliens” into Jacksonville International Airport “that we know about.” He asserted that the Biden administration has been refusing to share information about the flights.

He called it a “human smuggling operation.”

“There should be a better way — we need enforcement at the border. But when they come to Florida in the dead of night, truly that’s not the way to carry out an immigration policy,” Bean said.

Sen. Tina Polsky, representing parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, noted that the people being talked about are entitled under federal law to have immigration courts consider their requests for asylum in the United States.

“This is a huge country. Moving children around is not illegal. Using commercial carriers for this purpose is not illegal. Flying in the middle of the night is not illegal. However, this bill is illegal — unconstitutional,” Polsky said.

DeSantis, running for reelection this year and clearly eager to take on Joe Biden in two years if the fates allow, has accused the president of allowing “open borders,” even though the Democrat has continued certain policies from the Trump administration — including the minors’ flights.

The bill would bar state and local governments from signing contracts with or offering economic incentives to common carriers “willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting an unauthorized alien into the state of Florida knowing that the unauthorized alien entered into or remains in the United States in violation of law.”

According to a CNN report, these flights generally have involved unaccompanied minors being sent to group homes or sponsors while they await the outcome of their asylum claims, and they have gone on for years, including while Donald Trump was in office. The news organization noted that the governor’s office has acknowledged being briefed about the flights.

Existing state law, enacted in 2019, requires local governments to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The new bill would extend that obligation to include reports to state authorities. Moreover, local jails would be required to enter written agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to turn over undocumented people.

In September, a federal judge in Miami struck down elements of the 2019 law, concluding it was based on “xenophobic, nationalist, racist ideologies.”

The bill defines “common carriers” as “a person, firm, or corporation that undertakes for hire, as a regular business, to transport persons or commodities from place to place offering his or her services to all such as may choose to employ the common carrier and pay his or her charges.”

The bill defines “unauthorized aliens” as those not “lawfully admitted for permanent residence” or “authorized to be so employed by this chapter or by the attorney general” of the United States.

The measure lacks a number of provisions that DeSantis called for during a December news conference, including a demand for restitution from any contractor of any costs to the state arising from undocumented people and a prohibition against state medical and child-services benefits to them. The agencies and hospitals would be required to report any such expenditures.

Also missing is language requiring criminal jurisdictions to report convictions of undocumented persons to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for posting on a public website.

Following the vote, Kara Gross, legislative director of the ACLU of Florida, issued a written statement:

“The most concerning provision of this bill is that it shamelessly targets children and asylum seekers by banning private businesses and organizations from providing transportation to undocumented immigrants in Florida.

“This would lead to private entities requiring proof of immigration status from every child or adult who intends to utilize their transportation service, would open the door to unlawful interrogations, and would exacerbate racial profiling and discrimination.

“This places an unreasonable burden on common carriers to make immigration status determinations. With this provision, the bill seeks to create a cruel and unnecessary barrier for immigrants simply seeking to travel to their families in Florida, and is particularly inhumane when considering the impacts on immigrant children.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.