Florida taxpayers paid $615,000 for DeSantis to fly Texas migrants to island
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis paid $615,000 in Florida taxpayer money to relocate almost 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, his opponent tweeted Friday, as calls intensified from Democrats demanding an investigation of the action.
Democrat Charlie Crist, who is challenging DeSantis in the November governor’s race, tweeted the dollar amount after campaign researchers found the Sept. 8 payment to Destin-based Vertol Systems, a transportation services company, on the state’s transparencyflorida.gov site.
The payment was from the Florida Department of Transportation, which oversees a new, $12 million program to relocate "unauthorized aliens" from the state.
“Ron won’t answer questions, so we looked ourselves,” Crist tweeted.
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He added, “So Floridians paid $12,300 for each refugee DeSantis trafficked for his own political purposes.”
DeSantis hasn’t provided any details about how he conducted the relocation move Wednesday, which came a day before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent two busloads of migrants to the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. He did tell reporters Friday that he's planning more similar operations to keep migrants out of Florida.
DeSantis' office says it acted in compliance with Florida's immigration relocation program
Further uncertainties linger about the state’s role in transporting the migrants, who are mostly Venezuelans. Many reported that they had been recruited to the flights in Texas by a woman identified only as “Perla,” who promised expedited work papers and other opportunities in Boston.
The governor's office Friday, though, said it acted in accordance with the state's relocation program.
"Florida’s immigration relocation program aims to interdict human smugglers, traffickers, or other criminal aliens found within the state, as well as prevent illegal aliens at the southern border from entering Florida," spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in a statement.
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State budget language authorizing the $12 million program allows for the transport and "relocation of unauthorized aliens," but only mentions those in Florida.
Still, the relocations have enflamed the debate over President Biden’s border policy, which Republicans say is heightening the influx of undocumented migrants, drugs and crime into the U.S., particularly to GOP-led border states Texas and Arizona.
Biden denounced the governors’ moves, which came after Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey already sent migrants to Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
“Instead of working with us on solutions, Republicans are playing politics with human beings, using them as props,” Biden said. “What they’re doing is simply wrong.”
After two days of uncertainty on the Massachusetts island, the migrants Friday were moved to a military installation, Joint Base Cape Cod, for temporary shelter and humanitarian support.
Civil rights attorneys are helping with their immigration efforts, and volunteers on Martha’s Vineyard had fed and helped house them in a local church.
Crist agreed that U.S. Justice Department should investigate whether DeSantis violated federal trafficking laws
Crist was at the state Capitol Friday for a campaign rally, where he said he agreed with the call from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who he defeated in the August Democratic primary, that the U.S. Justice Department should investigate whether DeSantis violated federal trafficking laws in moving the migrants.
“This may have not just been an immoral act,” Crist said. “This may have been an illegal act. And we have the right to know.”
DeSantis seemed to be mindful that Florida’s relocation law, which he pushed through the Republican-controlled Legislature this year, addresses only moving “unauthorized aliens from this state.”
The two planes paid by Florida left San Antonio, Texas, then went to Crestview on the Florida Panhandle, a stop possibly intended to legitimize the use of Florida taxpayer dollars. From there, one plane went to Spartanburg, S.C., before continuing onto Martha’s Vineyard.
The other plane went to Charlotte, N.C., before landing on the island, according to flight records.
Bruce Bowman, vice president and general counsel for Emerald Coast Aviation, which runs Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, told the USA Today Network-Florida that nobody called ahead to let them know that a plane bearing undocumented immigrants or a plane sent from Texas by the governor was going to land in Crestview.
"Nothing happened out of the ordinary. What was reported to me was the plane landed, we fueled it and it left," he said.
DeSantis, an expected 2024 Republican presidential contender, defended his decision, speaking Thursday in Niceville.
“We take what’s happening at the southern border very seriously, unlike some, and unlike the President of the United States who has refused to lift a finger to secure that border,” DeSantis said.
On Friday, DeSantis, speaking in Daytona Beach, said more flights are planned to send Venezuelan immigrants and others to out-of-state “sanctuary” communities.
“There's also going to be buses, and there will likely be more flights,” said DeSantis. “I'll tell you this, the Legislature gave me $12 million. We're going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we're protecting the people of the state of Florida.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport