What Happened to Florida’s Migrant Transportation Program? New Legislation Still Leaves Undocumented Immigrants Subject to Being Used in Political Stunts

By: Nathen Castillo

In June of 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis authorized a budget that set aside $12 million to create a migrant transportation program.[1] The goal of the original program was to “relocate out of the state of Florida foreign nationals who are not lawfully present in the United States.”[2] But roughly three months after the budget approval, what transpired did not align with that goal.

On September 14, 2022, a group of 48 migrants were picked up in San Antonio, Texas, boarded onto two privately chartered planes, and flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.[3] Once they landed, they were loaded onto vans, transported to a community center, and told to knock on the door.[4] When the community center staff opened the door, they had several questions about who they were and where they came from.[5] One of the migrants told the aid group workers that they had been promised the community center would help them find housing and jobs.[6] At that point, many of the migrants realized that they had been lured into this on false promises. They were on an island, far from where they came from, and deposited at a community center that had not been warned of their arrival.

How the migrants ended up being victims to this program is even more strange. Most of the migrants said they had been approached in San Antonio by a woman named Perla, who informed them about free flights to Massachusetts. [7] The woman was later identified by the migrants and investigators as Perla Huerta; an individual with a background in military counterintelligence, and who is believed to have been sent from Florida to Texas tasked with managing the transportation of the migrants.[8] The migrants were told that jobs and people that could help them awaited them in Martha’s Vineyard, that they would be provided free meals, and a place to stay before the flights.[9] In addition, they were provided a brochure, titled “Refugee Migrant Benefits,” that proclaimed Massachusetts welcomes them, and promised “up to eight months of cash assistance” for “income-eligible” refugees in Massachusetts.[10] Many of the migrants, however, were not eligible for the assistance programs advertised in those brochures.[11]

When the news of the flights attracted international attention in the media, DeSantis quickly claimed credit for the program.[12] Disturbed by the outcome of DeSantis’ program, politicians and immigration advocates called the flights a political stunt in which the migrants were used as political pawns.[13] His response to the criticism: “Our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction … [and] we will help facilitate the transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.” [14] His response was nothing more than political doublespeak, as the Martha’s Vineyard flights exemplify the negligible preparation that went behind the program to ensure those being transported were going to receive what they were promised.

About four months after the migrant flights, DeSantis and his administration began to see numerous lawsuits against them in both state and federal courts.[15] These lawsuits range from claims alleging fraudulent and discriminatory schemes to unauthorized use of state funds, and even a criminal investigation was initiated based on the unlawful restraint of the migrants. [16]

After the controversial migrant flights and the inevitable legal battle that continues to date, one would expect that changes would have been made to the DeSantis’ migrant transportation program. However, scant efforts have been made to rectify the concerns illuminated by the Martha’s Vineyard flights.

One of the main issues of the first program was that the law only authorized the transportation of undocumented immigrants from within the state of Florida to another state.[17] The migrants on the Martha’s Vineyard flights were picked up in Texas and then flown to Massachusetts, and therefore those flights were not legally authorized.[18] In response to the legal challenges that arose out of the original migrant transportation program, in February of 2023, the Florida legislature approved new legislation.[19] The 2023 legislation now allows for the transportation of “inspected unauthorized aliens”[20] from anywhere in the country, even if they’ve never been inside of Florida. [21] Inspected unauthorized alien is defined as “an individual who has documentation from the United States Government indicating that the United States Government processed and released him or her into the United States without admitting the individual in accordance with” federal law.[22] The new legislation effectively repeals the predecessor program and allocates $10 million to the Florida Division of Emergency Management—a department overseen by DeSantis[23]—to run the program.[24] Notably, the new legislation does not mention how migrants will be identified, how the migrants will receive information about their destinations, or whether the state will coordinate with officials in the jurisdictions the immigrants will be sent to.[25] Another concern is that the program could disrupt and prolong migrants’ immigration process because those who are paroled in the U.S. are required to appear in court usually in the jurisdiction they were paroled in.[26] S.B. 6-B is also silent as to how this will be reconciled.

One of the main reasons why the migrant transportation legislation has garnered support by Florida legislators is because they want to “elevate the [U.S. border policy] conversation to a national level.”[27] But the means by which the Florida legislature has chosen to elevate this conservation—by making illusory promises to vulnerable immigrants and displacing them—are morally repugnant. Immigrants are human beings, not political mechanisms through which governments effect change or bolster political conversation. In the coming months we shall see how the current legal battle plays out, and hopefully the cessation of the program.

[1] Edgar Sandoval et al., The Story Behind DeSantis’s Migrant Flights to Martha’s Vineyard, The New York Times (Oct. 2, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/02/us/migrants-marthas-vineyard-desantis-texas.html.

[2] Steve Contorno, DeSantis’ migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard appear outside the scope of Florida transport program guidelines, state documents show, CNN (Oct. 8, 2022, 8:30 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/08/us/florida-migrants-marthas-vineyard-state-documents-contractors/index.html.

[3] See id.; Edgar Sandoval et al., The Story Behind DeSantis’s Migrant Flights to Martha’s Vineyard, The New York Times (Oct. 2, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/02/us/migrants-marthas-vineyard-desantis-texas.html.

[4] Edgar Sandoval et al., The Story Behind DeSantis’s Migrant Flights to Martha’s Vineyard, The New York Times (Oct. 2, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/02/us/migrants-marthas-vineyard-desantis-texas.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. 

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Douglas Soule, Revisiting DeSantis, Martha’s Vineyard, and the migrant flight controversy, Tallahassee Democrat. (Dec. 30, 2022, 4:16 PM), https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/politics/2022/12/30/ron-desantis-florida-gov-legal-battles-marthas-vineyard-migrant-flights/69764915007/.

[14] Id.

[15] See id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See Sandoval, supra note 1.

[19] Matt Shuham, Florida Republicans Approve $10 Million Slush Fund To Fly Asylum Seekers Around the U.S., HUFFPOST (Feb. 10, 2023, 02:10 PM), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/desantis-migrant-asylum-seeker-flights-marthas-vineyard_n_63e67320e4b0255caaeb79f6.

[20] S.B. 6-B, 2023 (Fla. 2023).

[21] Shuham, supra note 19.

[22] S.B. 6-B, 2023 (Fla. 2023).

[23] Valerie Crowder, After Martha’s Vineyard, lawmakers give DeSantis $10 million more to move migrants, npr (Feb. 10, 2023, 12:41 PM), https://www.npr.org/2023/02/10/1155806778/desantis-florida-republicans-migrant-transport-millions.

[24] Shuham, supra note 19.

[25] Crowder, supra note 23.

[26] Id.

[27] Shuham, supra note 19.

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