DeSantis migrant airlift draws a second lawsuit, this time from a state senator

Picking up asylum seekers in Texas violated letter of the law, it claims

By: - September 23, 2022 2:14 pm

Leon County Courthouse, March 11, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

Legal complications are growing for Gov. Ron DeSantis over his airlift of asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, with a state senator filing a lawsuit claiming the flights violated state law and the Florida Constitution.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade County, filed a legal complaint Thursday night in Leon County Circuit Court, in the state capital, seeking a declaration that the program was illegal and an order blocking it from happening again. (Docket here.)

Jason Pizzo. Credit: Florida Senate

Pizzo is asserting standing to sue as a citizen of Florida. The lawsuit names DeSantis, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue, and the Florida Department of Transportation. DeSantis authorized the airlift, it explains, the DOT carried it out, and Patronis paid the bill.

Representatives of DeSantis and Patronis issued written statements attacking Pizzo’s move.

“Sen. Pizzo never misses an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame and is challenging an action on an appropriation he voted for,” said DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske.

“Sen. Pizzo, along with Minority Leader Lauren Book, voted for the $12 million appropriation to relocate migrants,” Patronis deputy Frank Colling III said.

“Now that the law that they voted for is being implemented, and shedding light on the border crisis, Pizzo and Book have gone to their same old handbook, and hired a Democratic operative attorney to go after the executive branch for following the law. We are in receipt of the filing and we are currently exploring options for sanction and/or countersuit measures,” Collins continued.

Book, or Broward County, has written to Jared Purdue, Florida’s secretary of Transportation, to demand an explanation of the airlift but says she hasn’t yet received an answer.

The proviso language was included in a $112 billion state budget passed by the Legislature for the 2022-23 fiscal year, so a vote against that language would have been a vote against everything else in the Appropriations Act. (“After adjusting for other appropriations and vetoes, appropriations for FY2022-23 total $110.189 billion,” according to Florida TaxWatch.)

In addition, the $12 million was squished into page 494 of the Legislature’s 518-page state budget for 2022-23, according to the budget documents, so even some lawmakers might not have seen that figure.

Here’s the budget language, SECTION 185 stated: “From the interest earnings associated with the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund (Public Law 117-2), the nonrecurring sum of $12,000,000 from the General Revenue Fund is appropriated to the Department of Transportation for Fiscal Year 2021-2022, for implementing a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.

“The department may, upon the receipt of at least two quotes, negotiate and enter into contracts with private parties, including common carriers, to implement the program. The department may enter into agreements with any applicable federal agency to implement the program. The term “unauthorized alien” means a person who is unlawfully present in the United States according to the terms of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act. The term shall be interpreted consistently with any applicable federal statutes, rules, or regulations. The unexpended balance of funds appropriated to the department in this section remaining as of June 30, 2022, shall revert and is appropriated for Fiscal Year 2022-2023 to the department for the same purpose. This section shall take effect upon becoming a law.”

DeSantis has defended the Texas operation as a way to divert migrants before they arrive in Florida. He insists he also intended to spotlight President Joe Biden’s “open borders” policy, although Biden has continued many of the immigration programs adopted by former president Donald Trump.

Other legal problems

Purdue is also named in a putative class action filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts over the airlift. The plaintiffs include the immigrant-rights group Alianza Americas and three unnamed migrants pressing counts including illegal seizure, false arrest, violation of due process, and other federal offenses.

Also named in that lawsuit are DeSantis, the state, the transportation agency, and up to five as-yet unidentified participants in the airlift, identified as “Doe” defendants, who allegedly induced migrants to join the flights through false promises of immigration assistance only to dump them on the tarmac at the Massachusetts vacation spot.

There have been calls for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and, in Texas, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar has announced his own investigation into whether the operation violated Texas law.

The Pizzo lawsuit cites the plain language of the proviso: That the $12 million was to pay for the removal of “unauthorized aliens from this state.” Yet the airlift didn’t remove unauthorized aliens from the state, nor undergo the usual contract bidding process, the brief argues.

In fact, it continues, in making a landing in the Florida Panhandle while en route between Texas and Martha’s Vineyard, the administration actually violated a law DeSantis pushed through the Legislature denying contracts to carriers that transport aliens into Florida.

DeSantis designed that language to punish contractors working with the federal government to move migrants, including children, from border regions to Florida cities like Jacksonville for placement with families or shelters.

Additionally, it is questionable that the migrants were “unauthorized,” having turned themselves in to immigration officials and been given court dates on their asylum claims.

Constitutional violation

Furthermore, the proviso violates the Florida Constitution’s prohibition against enacting substantive legislation through the state budget bill, the document argues.

The complaint notes that the administration paid $615,000 to Vertol Systems Co. Inc. to handle the airlift, then another $950,000 to do the same. (The second time, the ultimate destination was to be Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware, although the administration appears to have gotten cold feet in light of the backlash against the Martha’s Vineyard gambit and cancelled the trip).

At the same time, the brief notes that because the migrants were collected in Texas there was no nexus to Florida as required under the proviso language.

The proviso doesn’t “authorize the defendants to use state funds for (a) the transporting of aliens who are authorized from Florida, (b) the transporting of aliens from another state who were authorized, or (c) the transporting of authorized aliens from another state,” it reads.

Neither did the proviso authorize provision of hotel rooms, food, haircut, and information packets to anyone, as has been reported was done preparatory to the Martha’s Vineyard and scrubbed Delaware trips, the complaint adds.

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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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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