TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to block state contracts from going to companies that transport unaccompanied migrant minors from the southern border.
The problem? No business that the governor's office has identified so far has state contracts or gets money from the state, records show.
It’s among the potential problems with the governor’s loosely outlined policy push, which is a central part of contentious immigration legislation DeSantis is championing ahead of the 2022 midterms.
Companies involved with the program, mostly run through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, contract with the federal government to transport unaccompanied minors from the southern border all over the country — including regularly to Jacksonville International Airport.
The flights have long occurred, but have increased under President Joe Biden, and Republicans are increasingly using the program as political grist to highlight what they say is failed border policies leading to the administration sending what they say are potentially dangerous undocumented people throughout the country.
That argument gained more traction with Republicans and others after a 24-year-old immigrant from Honduras allegedly lied about his age to get on the flights and is now accused of killing a Jacksonville man.
Using the Jacksonville International Airport as a backdrop in December, DeSantis said that murder was a major reason why he wanted the Republican-dominated legislature to pass legislation blocking state contracts from companies that conduct the flights. At the time, he said he had reviewed a list of vendors that took part in the federal program.
POLITICO requested that list shortly after the Dec. 10 press conference, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Friday provided a spreadsheet with abbreviated names of the charter companies, dates when the flights took place and which federal agency apparently oversaw it, among other information. The list was compiled through an unidentified outside source.
“FDLE developed a source who provided the information to us,” said FDLE spokesperson Gretl Plessinger. “All the information we received is on the spreadsheet.” She did not elaborate on who the individual was or how that person was connected to the program.
The spreadsheet included the name of six companies, most of which are relatively little-known airlines or charter flight companies. None that could be identified by POLITICO currently receive payments from the state for any services, or have active state contracts, according to the state records.
One of the companies, “World ATL,” could not be identified, and another listed as “Elite Air” brought up multiple different companies. One company contacted by POLITICO said it was not them, while another did not return requests seeking comment.
When asked if the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had more detailed information to identify the companies — to make sure that if the state blocked future state contracts it would be doing so from the correct company — the department said it did not have information beyond what was provided by the unnamed “source.”
“The only information we have is what is on the spreadsheet,” Plessinger said.
DeSantis' office says it is continuing to identify potential vendors involved with the federal program.
“The governor has been clear — no company that participates in the Biden Administration human smuggling operation should receive any state funding,” said DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw on Friday. “To that end, we are using every tool at our disposal to identify those companies and are pursuing legislation necessary to ensure these companies don’t receive state funding.”
“This includes taking steps to further identify all involved parties,” she added.
Republicans have been specifically critical of the migrant flights because many take place overnight, which they say is designed to make them harder to identify.
“Our actions are necessitated by the Biden Administration’s complete failure to endorse our nation’s immigration laws, and the complete lack of cooperation and information sharing [from] our federal ‘partners’ under the direction of Biden’s political appointees,” Pushaw said.
The records the Florida Department of Law Enforcement obtained from a “source” identified 78 total flights between May and October 2021, of which 34 came from Houston and another 17 from El Paso.
More than half of those flights are listed as being carried out by “Swift Air,” a company owned iAero Group that provides charter flights for VIP clients and has long held federal contracts to transport immigrants. In 2019, the company was highlighted by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights as one of the main airlines involved in the U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement deportation flights.
A person who answered the phone for the company on Friday, which has hubs in Miami and Phoenix, asked POLITICO to email questions. iAero Group did not reply to POLITICO’s questions.
DeSantis’ proposal to ban state contracts from vendors who participate in the program is a key element in identical immigration bills legislators have filed in the House and Senate, which began work on the proposals last week. During a contentious meeting Monday of the Senate Judiciary Committee, state Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican sponsoring the bill, told members he was unaware of companies that would be impacted by the proposal despite DeSantis saying in early December he had reviewed the list.
On Thursday, Senate President Wilton Simpson said it did not matter who the companies currently are because the bill aims to cut off future state contracts. It’s unclear, however, if the state will actually enter into such contracts.
“It will be a consequence of doing that in the future,” he told POLITICO. “We will ban you from doing business in the state.”
Along with provisions banning state contracts, the Senate’s immigration bill requires local law enforcement agencies to enter into cooperation agreement with federal immigration officials and expand Florida’s sanctuary cities policies, which a federal judge in September said were crafted with the help of “anti-immigrant hate groups.”
During its first Senate committee hearing, lawmakers advanced the proposal on a party-line vote over vocal opposition from Democrats and immigration advocates.
"It just goes to show there is no point behind this except a political statement to the federal government,” said Sen. Tina Scott Polsky (D-Boca Raton). “As I mentioned in committee, there is no way we would have heard this bill two years ago. All these public safety reasons they talk about are a sham. It won’t make anyone safer to try and stop the transfer of children to Florida to get them help."