Florida GOP calls for special session to expand controversial migrant flight program

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis will use a special session next week to expand a controversial immigration program he used in September to ferry 50 mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

The special session, which legislative leaders convened on Friday, will include consideration of a bill that would create an “Unauthorized Alien Transportation Program,” according to the Florida House and Senate. Lawmakers will also address other issues during next week’s session, including how to deal with Disney’s Reedy Creek district.

House Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) and Senate Speaker Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) have sent separate memos to their members saying the program is in response to an “influx of migrants landing in the Florida Keys.” . The DeSantis administration has used state resources in recent weeks in response to the landing of hundreds of hundreds of Cubans and Haitians in the Florida Keys.

The memos contain no details on how the program would work, and immigration legislation has not yet been formally filed.

The moves by DeSantis and GOP legislative leaders signal that the governor has no plans to stop his controversial program of transporting migrants to blue strongholds like Massachusetts. His first and only series of flights, in mid-September, caused a huge uproar, with Democrats and immigration backers accusing DeSantis of using migrants as political pawns.

DeSantis received $12 million for the migrant transportation program in his budget for the current year, which he said was needed to highlight what he called the Biden administration’s failed border policies. The money came from funds linked to federal Covid-19 relief funds.

The current state budget directs the money only to be used to remove migrants “out of this state,” aka Florida. Because the migrants were sent from Texas last fall, that language has become the subject of a lawsuit by state Senator Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat who says DeSantis violated the spending provision because they were relocated from Texas and not from Florida.

DeSantis’ proposed new program would allow the state to fund future flights of migrants who originate anywhere in the United States, according to the proposal. DeSantis’ proposed budget, which was unveiled Wednesday, calls for an additional $12 million for the program.

Multiple lawsuits were filed against the DeSantis administration over the migrant flights, including by the Center for Government Accountability, which said the DeSantis administration was withholding public records related to the program. Another, of the Boston-based civil rights lawyers, accused the governor of carrying out “a premeditated, fraudulent and illegal scheme” by bringing migrants to Massachusetts.

Documents released in late December showed DeSantis’ top security official, Larry Keefe, helped write the language that helped the company responsible for chartering the flights, Vertol Systems, his former legal client, obtain a state contract to fly migrants from San Antonio to Marta’s Vineyard. The logs also revealed that Keefe used a non-public email address which made it appear that the emails were from ‘Clarice Starling’, the main character in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’.

Those documents were not originally released as part of the lawsuit, but instead were withdrawn days before Christmas with a memo from DeSantis’ public records office that they originally had no knowledge of Keefe’s private account.

The state has paid Vertol Systems $4.4 million since September, including $950,000 on Jan. 31, state records show, for a total program cost of nearly $90,000 for each migrant relocated.

In a September email, James Montgomerie, a senior Vertol executive, told Florida Department of Transportation purchasing administrator Paul Baker that under the contract they would be moving “unauthorized aliens out of Florida.”

The email indicated that the “humanitarian services” would run from September 19 to October 3 and said the “private wrap” would be $950,000. The email offers no further explanation, but four $950,000 state payments were made to the company, records show.

Though the administration has flown only one series of flights, it reported in late September that it was chartering another from Texas near Rehoboth, the summer vacation spot on the Delaware coast where President Joe Biden has a home. Aid organizations in several states have rushed to be able to offer services to migrants on flights. One flight took off but never landed in Delaware, and it is unclear whether migrants were on board.

During a press conference Wednesday, DeSantis doubled down on his support for the plan amid rising costs and controversy.

“We’ve had a deterrent effect and people are tired of having an open border with no rule of law in this country,” he said.

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