Migrant flights bill en route to Gov. DeSantis’ desk
The flights to Martha's Vineyard may have broken Florida's own laws. Image via AP.

The Legislature approved a cleanup of the program behind last year's Martha's Vineyard flights.

The Legislature approved an overhaul of a controversial program allowing Gov. Ron DeSantis to fly migrants around the nation.

The House debated and passed a bill (SB 6B) on a 77-34 party-line vote that repeals a law passed last year and replaces it with one making key changes. The most notable is that the legislation allows DeSantis to fly “unauthorized aliens” from anywhere in the U.S. to sanctuary cities and states.

Rep. John Snyder, a Stuart Republican, said the program is important because it addresses a crisis at the border mishandled by President Joe Biden’s administration.

“I wish that we were not here to have to address this specific issue,” Snyder said. “But unfortunately, what we’ve seen out of Washington, D.C., under President Joe Biden is a complete failure to uphold the rule of law to enforce our borders.”

He said the legislation provides important flexibility to DeSantis. It budgets $10 million for the program. It also shifts the program from the Florida Department of Transportation to the auspices of the Department of Emergency Management.

But revisiting the statute proved especially controversial considering DeSantis has already flown migrants from outside of Florida to other states. The state in September chartered two planes to transport 49 people, most of them Venezuelan refugees, from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The law passed last year, which was also championed by Snyder, enabled “the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state,” but the individuals who were moved last year never stepped foot in Florida but for a plane stop in the Panhandle.

Ongoing legislation suggests the past flights did not follow the law. But House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, disagreed.

“I think the Governor acted within his authority on the prior flights, but we’ll make sure that there’s no question whatsoever,” he said.

Democrats asserted the program, in addition to being inhumane, was an irresponsible use of tax dollars.

“We are taking $10 million to create a Florida program where our funds will be used towards every state other than the state of Florida based on non-existent data,” said Rep. Daryl Campbell, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. “If only sense made sense. To transport migrants that have already been inspected by the federal government, what are we doing?”

Republicans said the legislation only authorizes transport of migrants who have already been processed by the Department of Homeland Security, but are still not legally in the U.S. But the House rejected amendments to ensure individuals such as those in the U.S. with temporary protected status.

“The folks targeted by this bill are escaping excruciating conditions,” said Rep. Rita Harris, an Orlando Democrat. “Many of them are coming from places like communist Cuba.”

Republicans, though, said an influx of migrants increasingly is impacting far from the border. That’s been demonstrated strongly as hundreds or thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees arrive in South Florida by boat.

Snyder said the program will only transport those who voluntarily board planes. But the promise comes despite stories many refugees on the Martha’s Vineyard flights did not have a clear understanding. They were not spoken to in English.

But Snyder said those individuals were told where they were going and were even given maps of Martha’s Vineyard to get around when they arrived.

However, Snyder also said Florida has no obligation to let destination governments and social service providers know migrants are on the way. He said venues that have described themselves as sanctuary cities or states should be prepared to handle the influx of refugees.

Democrats have also criticized the financial safeguards. It remains unclear months later how much money was spent on the program last year. At least $1.56 million was spent to move the 49 people in two planes, and there were indications another round of flights was canceled that would have transported immigrants to President Biden’s home in Delaware.

The Senate already passed legislation earlier this week. Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, the Spring Hill Republican carrying the bill in the upper chamber, said the bill was a critical cleanup.

“This bill allows for voluntary transport of inspected aliens to places around the country, to sanctuary cities and states who have allocated resources for these purposes,” Ingoglia said. “The state of Florida has not and never will be a sanctuary state.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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