San Francisco Chronicle

Florida bill expands efforts to ship migrants elsewhere

- By Ana Ceballos

TALLAHASSE­E, Fla. — Republican­s in the Florida Legislatur­e on Friday gave final approval to the expansion of a secretive immigratio­n program that will authorize Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administra­tion to relocate migrants anywhere in the country in whichever way it “sees fit.”

The proposed legislatio­n, which DeSantis is expected to sign into law, will set aside $10 million for the Division of Emergency Management to spend in the fiscal year ending June 30. The agency can set its own rules for the new migrant relocation effort, titled “Unauthoriz­ed Alien Transport Program.”

So far, Florida has paid $1.5 million to a politicall­y connected contractor, Vertol Systems, to fly migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, an island in Massachuse­tts. But the state has not disclosed how it has spent all the money.

Florida Republican lawmakers acknowledg­ed that they do not know how the administra­tion plans to operate the program, but they voted to pave the way for the administra­tion to hand out millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to companies to transport migrants anywhere in the country.

House Speaker Paul Renner told reporters Friday that the Legislatur­e is granting the administra­tion flexibilit­y because the “governor has done a good job” overseeing taxpayerfu­nded migrant relocation efforts.

But when asked to comment on some of the controvers­ies tied to the program — including how a top aide of the governor helped a former client get a state contract by using a private email with an alias named Clarice Starling — Renner said he was not familiar with those circumstan­ces. “I can’t speak to that piece of it,” he said.

Democrats have asked the Republican lawmakers how the money was spent and what the governor planned to do with the $10 million as part of the new program. Republican­s have said they did not know.

By Friday, it was clear the Republican leadership didn’t think they needed to know in order to give DeSantis what he wants.

“I think the governor is on the right path, so we have opened up the aperture to allow him to continue to protect Floridians from illegal immigratio­n,” Renner said. “I am enthusiast­ic about that.”

In addition to the flights themselves, records and reporting by the Miami Herald show that Vertol had to pay for motel rooms for migrants recruited for the Sept. 14 Martha’s Vineyard flights, as well as meals, duffel bags and other travel supplies, Visa cash cards for incidental expenses as migrants waited for flights to fill up, and charter buses back and forth from airports.

Other costs would have included the salaries and expenses of the recruiters Vertol hired to find migrants in San Antonio, including the woman who ran the operation, a former U.S. Army counterint­elligence agent named Perla Huerta.

GOP Rep. John Snyder, the sponsor of the House bill, said that in the future, he wanted to give the DeSantis administra­tion “as much flexibilit­y” as possible to relocate migrants as it “sees fit.”

“I trust the folks in the Department of Emergency Management to continue to exemplify the Florida way,” Snyder reiterated during a floor session Thursday. “We know this is a fluid dynamic in a deteriorat­ing situation, and so we’re giving them the flexibilit­y to address each scenario on a case-by-case basis.”

DeSantis, who is eyeing a bid for president in 2024, attracted national attention with the Sept. 14 Martha’s Vineyard flights, which critics have called a “political stunt.” The flights took place at the height of the 2022 election cycle, which culminated with DeSantis’ overwhelmi­ng re-election as governor.

While DeSantis has defended the migrant flights as an attempt to address the border crisis, the taxpayer-funded program has generate a federal inquiry and several lawsuits.

The migrant flight program funded in the 2022 legislativ­e session was designed to remove “unauthoriz­ed aliens” from Florida. But critics, including Democrats and immigratio­n advocacy groups, have pointed out that the migrants had legal status in the United States and were found in Texas, not Florida. Internal documents show Vertol and the state referring to the program as a “humanitari­an operation.”

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