Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting on Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting on Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Wade Vandervort/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Republicans in the Legislature on Friday gave final approval to the expansion of a secretive immigration program that will authorize Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration to relocate migrants anywhere in the country in whichever way it "sees fit."

The proposed legislation, which DeSantis is expected to sign into law, will set aside $10 million for the Division of Emergency Management to spend in the fiscal year ending June 30. The agency can set its own rules for the new migrant relocation effort entitled, "Unauthorized Alien Transport Program."

Republican lawmakers acknowledged they do not know how the administration plans to operate the program in the future, but they voted to pave the way for the administration to hand out millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to companies to transport migrants anywhere in the country.

House Speaker Paul Renner told reporters Friday that the Legislature is granting the administration flexibility because the "governor has done a good job" overseeing taxpayer-funded migrant relocation efforts.

But when asked to comment on some of the controversies tied to the program — including how a top aide of the governor helped a former client get a state contract by using a private email with an alias named Clarice Starling — Renner said he was not familiar with those circumstances. "I can't speak to that piece of it," Renner said.

So far, Florida has paid $1.5 million to a politically connected contractor, Vertol Systems Company, to fly migrants from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard, an island in Massachusetts. But the state has not disclosed how it has spent all the money.

Questions linger over program's operation

Time and again Democrats asked the Republican lawmakers how the money was spent and what the governor planned to do with the $10 million as part of the new program. Time and again, Republicans said they did not know.

By Friday, it was clear Republican leadership didn't think they needed to know in order to give DeSantis what he wants.

"I think the governor is on the right path so we have opened up the aperture to allow him to continue to protect Floridians from illegal immigration," Renner said. "I am enthusiastic about that."

In addition to the flights themselves, records and reporting by the Miami Herald show Vertol had to pay for motel rooms for migrants recruited for the Sept. 14 Martha's Vineyard flights, as well as meals, duffel bags and other travel supplies, Visa cash cards for incidental expenses as migrants waited for flights to fill up, and charter buses back and forth from airports. Other costs would have included the salaries and expenses of the recruiters Vertol hired to find migrants in San Antonio, including the woman who ran the operation, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent named Perla Huerta.

In the future, state Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the House bill, said he wanted to give the DeSantis administration "as much flexibility" as possible to relocate migrants as it "sees fit."

"I trust the folks in the Department of Emergency Management to continue to exemplify the Florida way," Snyder reiterated during a floor session Thursday. "We know this is a fluid dynamic in a deteriorating situation and so we're giving them the flexibility to address each scenario on a case-by-case basis."

Political motivations questioned

DeSantis, who is eyeing a bid for president in 2024, attracted national attention with the Sept. 14 Martha's Vineyard flights, which critics have called a "political stunt." The flights took place at the height of the 2022 election cycle, which culminated with DeSantis' overwhelming reelection as governor.

While DeSantis has defended the migrant flights as an attempt to address the border crisis, the taxpayer-funded program has generated a local criminal investigation, a federal inquiry and several lawsuits, including one from migrants who say they were tricked into boarding the flights with false promises of jobs and aid at the flights' destination.

The migrant flight program funded in the 2022 legislative session was designed to remove "unauthorized aliens" from Florida. But critics, including Democrats and immigration advocacy groups, have pointed out that the migrants had legal status in the United States and were found in Texas, not Florida. Internal documents show Vertol and the state referring to the program as a "humanitarian operation."

"Our governor broke the law and instead of following the law he is changing the law," state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said Friday.

Republican lawmakers, however, argued that fixes to state laws are part of the legislative process. The reason why the issue is being fast-tracked, they argued, is because the nation's immigration troubles are a Florida emergency.

Renner said Thursday the proposed legislation has "never been more necessary," pointing to news that about 100 Haitians had arrived in the Florida Keys on overloaded boats.

"The Biden administration has failed to secure our borders. Florida will not wait on Washington," Renner posted on Twitter.

Snyder urged lawmakers to vote for the measure by saying: "Governor DeSantis is taking action and that's what we are doing today: We are addressing an emergency at the end of the day."

The bill, which now heads to DeSantis, was approved on a 77-34 party-line vote.

©2023 Miami Herald.

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