FL Legislature OKs migrant-relocation plan; critics say it’s shameful, a waste of taxpayer dollars

DeSantis still in hot water on the legal front over the Martha’s Vineyard flight

By: - February 10, 2023 3:30 pm

Children play in the makeshift shelter camps for Central American migrants while waiting for U.S. authorities to allow them to enter to begin their process of asylum into the country, on March 26, 2021, in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Francisco Vega/Getty Images)

Legislation that passed its final vote in the Florida house Friday confirms Gov. Ron DeSantis’ authority to round up migrants and deliver them to Democratic-dominated states. In fact, it expands that authority to the point that state agents can seek these migrants anywhere within the United States.

Two days after the state Senate approved the same bill, the House vote went 77-34, along party lines.

Jason Pizzo. Credit: Florida Senate

However, it remained unclear whether the measure would derail a legal challenge that Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo filed in state trial court against the version of the $12 million program enacted last year. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper has set the next hearing in that case for March 8.

There’s also a putative class action pending in federal court in Massachusetts, where DeSantis dumped nearly 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants in September into the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard without advance notice to authorities there. The plaintiffs include three of the transported migrants who assert a number of civil rights claims that the new bill doesn’t obviously address.

The measure (SB 6B) creates an “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” within the Florida Division of Emergency Management to arrange “transport of inspected unauthorized aliens within the United States, consistent with federal law.” That refers to people admitted to the United States with pending asylum claims and on other humanitarian grounds, even though they are authorized to be in the country under federal law.

The legislation would retroactively approve last year’s budget allocation for the program and provide $10 million to continue it, including money for the program that the administration hasn’t spent yet.


The development dismayed immigrant-rights activists.

“We are sad, angry, and worried, but unfortunately not surprised. With this bill’s passing, Florida has cemented itself as a cruel and unwelcoming place for families that are seeking safety from dictatorial regimes, Afifa Khaliq, chair of the Florida Immigrant Coalition said in a written statement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis during his second inaugural ceremony in January 2023. Credit: governor’s office

“What a difference from the ’50s and ’60s when we welcomed Cuban refugees and others with open arms. While Floridians are struggling to afford food, housing, and utilities, we are using valuable resources for human trafficking including people who haven’t even set foot in our state. I think about the thousands of children and families that are just like my own family, who come here, looking for opportunities and a chance at the American Dream. And today, the governor and the Republican Legislature are turning their backs on them and utilizing their trauma to continue expanding upon his own dream of fortune and grandeur. That’s wrong,” Khaliq said.

“It’s shameful that the Florida Legislature would waste taxpayer dollars to hunt down and relocate immigrants across the country to further Gov. Ron DeSantis’s anti-immigrant agenda and political aspirations,” A.J. Hernandez Anderson, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said in another written statement.

“We are also concerned about the provisions of the bill that allows the state of Florida to engage in widespread surveillance, targeting, and harassment of people, whether immigrants or U.S. citizens. Everyone in Florida deserves a state government that puts their needs first. Instead of wasting taxpayer money on these political stunts, the Florida Legislature should focus on countering the skyrocketing housing costs,” she said.

“As an evangelical Christian leader in Florida, I am grieved at Gov. DeSantis’ migrant relocation program. Our church is built of immigrants who have recently escaped socialist, brutal, and murderous dictatorships in their countries. These recent arrivals have come here to rebuild their lives. In doing so, they grow our economy and invest in our businesses,” said Agustin Quiles, government affairs director for La Fraternidad de Concilios y Entidades Evangélicas.

“Florida must once again become a state that welcomes immigrants, upholding both Christian and American values of welcoming and enabling immigrants to live out their God-given dignity and to be treated with compassion and respect,” Quiles said.

‘Maximum authority’

Signaling that passage was a foregone conclusion, House Speaker Paul Renner — a Republican, like the governor — hailed passage of the legislation even before the chamber convened for the vote, saying the point was “making sure that the governor has the maximum authority” to slow immigration into the state.

Florida House Speaker Paul Renner. Credit: Mitch Perry.

“He has not only a right but a duty to protect the citizens of Florida from the burden of illegal immigration. It is a huge tax on hospitals, on schools, on all of that,” Renner told reporters.

“But, beyond that, we see the entrance of fentanyl in massive quantities, we see clear evidence of human trafficking in women and children being brought across the border. It’s a terrible, terrible situation, all brought on by the lack of leadership at the federal level,” he continued.

“What we’re doing is simply saying, ‘Look, the states have got to step in and make sure that we give our governors the maxim tools to address this issue,” he said.

Fentrice Driskell, the Hillsborough County Democrat who leads her party’s caucus in the House, responded during a brief press availability that the entire week-long special session was less about solving problems than DeSantis’ anticipated run for president.

“This has been a cleanup tour for a lot of the governor’s mistakes when he’s acted hastily in kind of getting ahead of his skis. The Legislature in this special session cleaned up a lot of that, whether it was the Disney Reedy creek bill or this immigration bill,” she said.

“I just have a feeling that this had more to do with the governor’s agenda and protecting his reputation than actually doing things that would help keep Floridians healthy, prosperous and safe,” Driskell said.

The number of enforcement actions by federal agents increased by 200 percent between 2020 and 2021, to 1.9 million, according to a legislative analysis. Actions filed in 2022 amounted to 2.8 million, another 41 percent increase.

‘Open borders’

Republicans including DeSantis have accused President Joe Biden of running an “open borders” policy, even though he has continued enforcement of a Trump administration-era public-health-related bar on people crossing the southern border while offering entry under parole for 30,000 migrants each from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who have financial sponsors and pass background checks.

State Rep. John Snyder. Credit: FL House

House sponsor John Snyder, representing parts of Martin and Palm Beach counties, acknowledged the state wouldn’t consult with the federal or state governments about where it sends migrants, but complained the feds aren’t properly enforcing orders for the migrants to report for their asylum hearings.

He blamed undocumented immigrants for crimes including DUI and child abuse. Among the Republicans defending the measure was Kiyan Michael of Duval County, whose son, Brandon Randolph Michael, died in 2007 in a car crash involving an undocumented migrant driving without a license or registration.

Snyder didn’t know how many were landing in Florida but pointed to recent arrivals by boat of aspiring immigrants from Cuba in South Florida.

Participation would be voluntary, he said, although the bill doesn’t expressly say that. Republicans cast the program as doing migrants a favor by providing free transportion to “sanctuary” jurisdictions.

During preliminary debate Thursday, Republicans voted down Democratic amendments, including one to exclude asylum seekers or people granted entry as victims of trafficking or crime or under the Violence Against Women Act.

Another would have allowed transport from within Florida only, not from other states. Last year’s program envisioned removing migrants from Florida but DeSantis argued his people couldn’t find enough here and so went to Texas hoping to divert migrants intending to come to this state.

A third amendment would have barred the program from making false promises of jobs and disclosure of their destinations, as alleged by migrants flown last year to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

And yet another defeated amendment would have prevented contracts to transport migrants from going to former clients of members of the governor’s executive staff. This followed reports that the last contractor was a former client of Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public-safety adviser.

Fox News

Democrat Anna Eskamani alluded to reports that the administration provided video footage of the migrants’ arrival in Martha’s Vineyard to Fox News, where DeSantis has been a frequent guest even before becoming governor.

“Is there anything in your bill that prevents a transport from being leaked to the media?” she asked.

“No,” Synder replied.

He was unmollified by the fact that Biden has continued some Trump administration policies and recently announced a program allowing 30,000 migrants each month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venzuela who have U.S.-based financial sponsors and have passed a background check to enter the country legally and work two years, calling it an abuse of the immigration parole system.

Democrats emphasized the suffering driving immigration from despotic governments in the Caribbean, Latin America, and elsewhere.

State Rep. Marie Paule Woodson. Credit: FL House

“Immigrants and asylum seekers are human beings and they need to be treated as such. They are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends,” Democrat Marie Paule Woodson, representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, herself an immigrant from Haiti, argued during floor debate on Friday.

“Where is the humanity in [the bill]? Where is the understanding that these people are not leaving their homes to come here for a vacation? They are leaving because they are fleeing persecution, violence, crime, atrocities, rape, dictatorship insecurity, poverty, and you name it,” Woodson said.

Democrat Christopher Benjamin of Miami-Dade accused Republicans of spreading a “false narrative” that they’re really doing these migrants a favor when they’re really using desperate people as pawns in a political attack on the Biden administration.

“You seek to make a point to the federal government but you’re playing with people’s lives,” he said. “They’re human beings, not chess pieces.”

Furthermore, Florida needs immigrants to fill job vacancies in medicine, hospitality, and other industries, Orange County Democrat Johana López said.

Global warming

In her remarks to reporters, Driskell emphasized that the crisis has been years in the making.

“This immigration crisis did not start with the Biden administration, and it probably will take several administrations to solve it because it’s such a big issue. You look with global trends, you look with global warming and climate change, which unfortunately, conservatives in this country have been too reticent to want to address,” she said.

“I think this is yet another way for the governor as he tries to extend nationally to pick winners and losers and punish certain states, all of which seem to be blue states, in his effort to gain a bigger profile.

Litigation status

Meanwhile, on the litigation front, Judge Cooper held a Zoom meeting on Thursday with attorneys for the DeSantis administration and for Pizzo to discuss what effect the legislation would have on the senator’s lawsuit, which alleges the Legislature last year improperly used budget language to enact substantive legislation in authorizing the program. The new measure cures that problem, but Pizzo has raised additional claims.

Circuit Judge John Cooper. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

In the end, Cooper opted to proceed as planned at least until the March hearing date.

“It’s not my job to tell the Legislature what bill to change and what bill to not change,” Cooper said. If the Legislature enacts changes sufficient to undermine the case, he said, he’ll hear arguments about what to do at that time.

“Right now, it hasn’t happened,” the judge said.

Also not clear is what the changes mean for the class action in Massachusetts. The plaintiffs in that case include three migrants who claimed they had falsely been promised jobs and assistance. They raise a raft of civil rights claims, plus an assertion that the state improperly trod upon the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration.

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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.