TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Despite a call for an investigation and lingering questions about whether Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis broke the law ferrying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Florida’s governor is stepping up his efforts on his decision .
DeSantis described the thefts as “voluntary” during a Friday press conference.
“They are well driven,” he said. “It’s a human thing to do.”
But Democrats have accused DeSantis of using the migrants, believed to be largely Venezuelan, to help him win re-election as governor in November and continue to build his political profile to run for president in 2024.
“We’re not talking about a delivery of shoe boxes, we’re talking about people,” says Elizabeth Ricci, a Tallahassee-based immigration attorney.
Flight records show the migrants boarded two charter planes in San Antonio, Texas, and stopped in the Florida Panhandle. Then one landed in South Carolina and the other in North Carolina before arriving at their final destination at Martha’s Vineyard.
Where does the money come from to fly migrants
As part of this year’s roughly $109.9 billion state budget – which enjoyed bipartisan support – the legislature allocated $12 million “to facilitate the transportation of unauthorized aliens out of Florida”.
“We’re going to spend every penny of this,” DeSantis said at Friday’s press conference. Public records show the state paid $615,000 to a private contractor, Vertol Systems Inc., an aviation solutions provider, to transport the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s $12,300 per migrant.
DeSantis said the migrants were identified in Texas as wanting to move to Florida before signing release forms to go to Massachusetts. If waivers were signed, it is not clear if this was a true consent.
“What we’re trying to do is profile, ‘OK, who do you think is trying to get to Florida?’ “, said DeSantis. “If they get in a car with two other people, we won’t be able to detect it.”
Since President Joe Biden took office, the number of migrants crossing the US southern border has risen sharply. The US Border Patrol is on its way to a record 2 million arrests in a fiscal year.
DeSantis complained that the situation places an unfair burden on southern border states, even though Florida is not one of them. Still, he says a large number of undocumented migrants arriving in Texas want to move to Florida.
“If they end up coming to Florida, it’s going to impose a lot of cost on the communities,” he said. “We try to avoid that.”
Immigration Law Experts Suggest DeSantis May Have Trafficked Migrants
Some of the migrants who arrived at Martha’s Vineyard last week told NPR they were told they would be flown to Boston where they could get expedited work documents, but that’s not what they got. found upon their arrival at Martha’s Vineyard. Instead, local churches, homeless shelters and other aid groups had to scramble to accommodate them as they received no notice of their arrival.
Tallahassee-based immigration attorney Elizabeth Ricci says there’s a “good faith argument” to be made that luring migrants onto planes with the promise of a job makes them victims of crimes. And that means they could automatically qualify for a visa, she said.
“An inducement like that, whether or not you sign a waiver, is fraud and it’s part of the definition of human trafficking,” says Ricci. “I think everyone on those planes has a case to legalize as a direct result of being flown by the governor.”
According to an analysis of federal immigration law by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services: “Traffickers and abusers often use the lack of immigration status to exploit and control victims.” They “can lure individuals with false promises of jobs and a better life.”
Ricci said she thinks that’s exactly what DeSantis did. If law enforcement agrees, this could make migrants eligible for a special type of visa that protects victims of human trafficking. “It would be so ironic if these families ended up legalizing themselves and becoming citizens as a result of his actions.”
DeSantis Immigration Record
Flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard is the latest step DeSantis says he has taken in an attempt to reduce the number of undocumented migrants coming to the state.
In 2019, DeSantis signed into law a measure banning sanctuary cities, where local agencies had limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Since then, DeSantis has signed legislation requiring law enforcement to work with federal immigration authorities to report undocumented immigrants. Public employers and contractors must also verify the immigration status of workers. And state agencies may not work with organizations that help resettle undocumented immigrants.
California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida’s only Democratic state cabinet member, Nikki Fried, have called on the US Justice Department to investigate DeSantis transporting migrants out of Florida.
DeSantis disputes claims that migrants were “encouraged” to board planes bound for Massachusetts. “People who are under contract, they gave them a release form to sign, they gave them a package with a map of Martha’s Vineyard.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, who is running to unseat DeSantis in November, has already launched a digital ad accusing DeSantis of “putting politics above people’s lives.”
“Making fun of their fight for freedom – it makes me sick,” Crist said in the ad. “But that’s no surprise, because that’s who he is.”
But a recent NPR/Ipsos poll shows that a majority of Americans – including three-quarters of Republicans – say it’s either more or less true that the United States is “being invaded” on the southern border.