Florida Gov. DeSantis wants to add more money to controversial migrant relocation program

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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to pump more money into his migrant relocation program, which has drawn nationwide attention and controversy, as well as a multitude of legal challenges.

In his budget proposal for next year, he is requesting $12 million to relocate undocumented migrants. He got the same amount last year.

This was followed on Friday by an announcement that lawmakers would have a special session this week, with plans to push through a flurry of hot topic bills. One of them: Broadening the relocation program.

Legislative leaders say they will create an “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” within the Division of Emergency Management. It would be used to facilitate the “voluntary transport of unauthorized migrants who have been processed by the federal government and released into the United States."

In September, DeSantis transported nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

While opponents called the transport a vicious political stunt, DeSantis said it’s a way to draw attention to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. He’s also contended that his migrant relocation program is the "most effective" way to steer asylum seekers and other migrants away from Florida, a viewpoint he hammered on during Wednesday’s budget presentation press conference.

“I think we’ve had a deterrent effect, and I think people are sick of having an open border with no rule of law in this country,” DeSantis said. “We can just sit here and do nothing about it, or we can actually stand up and say, ‘Whatever tools we have at our disposal, we are going to be using.'"

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The September action by DeSantis drew indignation from Biden to officials in Massachusetts, along with immigrant advocates, who called the flights “a political stunt” and that the migrants were used “as political pawns.”

And, nearly five months after the controversial migrant flights, DeSantis and other administration officials face a legal gauntlet in state and federal court.

So far, the state has paid nearly $350,000 to two law firms to represent DeSantis and other state officials in a class action lawsuit filed in Boston by attorneys representing the migrants.

This is on top of the nearly $1.6 million paid to Destin, Fla.-based aviation firm Vertol Systems Company, which the state contracted for the migrant flights.

Overall, Florida has now spent nearly $40,000 to relocate each migrant.

Removing the Florida factor this year

After asking for $8 million to transport undocumented migrants out of Florida, lawmakers gave him $12 million last year. It was funded through interest earnings from Florida’s $8.8 billion portion of the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund.

It explicitly said the migrants had to be within Florida to be transported. So did the program guidelines. That wasn’t the case for the nearly 50 Venezuelans sent to Martha’s Vineyard, who, according to their lawyers, were in Texas legally because they were seeking political asylum and their cases were pending before immigration judges in various courts around the country.

But, when the DeSantis administration chartered two planes on Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Massachusetts, they did make a stop in Crestview, Florida.

This $12 million – this time from the general revenue fund – leaves out the word "Florida." It’s for “facilitating the transport of inspected unauthorized aliens within the United States,” according to the budget proposal.

In a Wednesday evening statement, Democratic House Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said the relocation program money request was troubling.

"I worry [it] could lead to further political stunts like when the Governor previously used taxpayer dollars to lure unsuspecting individuals seeking political asylum from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard," she said.

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The blowback, lawsuits

Because of the Martha’s Vineyard flights, DeSantis faces multiple lawsuits.

There’s one filed by state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami. It’s currently before a Leon County judge.

There’s also the federal class action lawsuit filed in Boston's federal courthouse on behalf of the migrants that accuse the DeSantis administration of deploying a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport them.

The Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, which filed the suit, alleges that Florida and Vertol officials transported the migrants under false pretenses.

In Miami federal court, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other immigration organizations also sued DeSantis over the flights. They allege that DeSantis’ program is discriminatory.

A lawsuit alleging that the state did not properly comply with public records requests about the program was recently dismissed by a Leon County judge.

But the blowback doesn't only include lawsuits.

Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, announced in September that his agency had opened an investigation into how 48 Venezuelan migrants were “lured” to board flights from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard.

And the Treasury's Office of the Inspector General said it is examining whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis improperly used COVID-19 aid to fund the transport of the migrants.

USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: DeSantis' Florida budget: More migrant relocation funds requested