Controversy continues over DeSantis' $12 million plan to transport undocumented migrants out of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Núñez sparked outrage in South Florida when she told a Spanish-language radio show host last weekend that Gov. Ron DeSantis would send undocumented Cuban migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border to President Biden’s home state of Delaware.
She later issued a statement clarifying her remarks, saying they were misinterpreted and that she was not singling out Cuban migrants fleeing a communist dictatorship but other migrants attempting to illegally cross the border into the U.S.
But the controversy brought renewed attention on DeSantis’ immigration policies, specifically a plan to use $12 million to pay for the transportation of undocumented immigrants dropped in Florida from the U.S.-Mexico border.
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Critics: Money could be better used for Floridians elsewhere
Immigration advocates and other critics say the money could be better used for more urgent needs of Floridians instead of “targeting and demonizing” immigrants.
"Governor DeSantis and his allies in the Legislature are once again using taxpayer money to target vulnerable communities instead of working to improve the health and economic well-being of Floridians,” said Silvana Caldera, immigrants' rights policy strategist for the ACLU of Florida.
She said the funds could go to more pressing priorities that include “affordable housing, healthcare access and job creation for all Floridians instead of harming immigrants.”
“There’s so much he could’ve spent the money on, but he’s playing political theater, demonizing and criminalizing immigrants and not really working for the people of Florida,” said Isabel Vinent, co-executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Bashing Biden on immigration
The Biden administration’s border security and immigration policies have become a favorite target for DeSantis and other Republicans nationwide. The debate ratcheted up earlier this year when two GOP governors — Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona — called out Biden and sent busloads of migrants from their border states to New York City and Washington. Almost 8,000 migrants have arrived on state-sponsored bus trips, straining resources and humanitarian services of both cities, which have also sought assistance from the federal government.
It was last December when DeSantis pushed lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Legislature to strengthen sanctuary city laws and restrict the state and local governments from contracting with companies that transport unauthorized immigrants into Florida. He also urged them to put aside $8 million to transport migrants out of Florida.
Standing behind a podium adorned with a sign reading “Secure Our Border, Secure Our States,” DeSantis outlined his own immigration priorities and denounced the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
“It’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it is true,” DeSantis told reporters. “If you sent [them] to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard or some of these places, that border would be secure the next day.” President Biden frequently travels to his Delaware home when not at the White House.
Legislators delivered DeSantis’ immigration wish list and boosted his $8 million request to $12 million to ship undocumented migrants out of the state. The money was to be administered through the state Department of Transportation.
The money has yet to used because, according to DeSantis, federal authorities have not sent undocumented migrants picked up at the southern border to Florida.
DeSantis told reporters in Tallahassee this week that Texas’ recent action in bussing migrants to Washington, D.C., and New York has meant “we haven't seen what I was expecting that we would see” with undocumented immigrants entering Florida.
“It’s a looming threat,” said Stephanie M. Álvarez-Jones, staff attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center of DeSantis’ plan. “It contributes, along with the other anti-immigrant rhetoric that DeSantis and his administration have continued on a daily basis, of having the immigrant population of Florida living in fear.”
'It's a bizarre loophole'
The $12 million money comes from interest earnings from Florida’s $8.8 billion portion of the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. It provided $350 billion to state and local governments, which the U.S. Treasury said is “to support their response to and recovery from the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
“The purpose of the fund was meant to help Floridians recover from the lingering impacts of the pandemic,” said Alexis Tsoukalas, a Florida Policy Institute policy analyst who focuses on immigration and labor issues.
Because the $12 million is from interest, said Tsoukalas, it doesn’t fall under the same rules as the federal fund itself. Still, she said that the $12 million was “unfaithful to the spirit of the federal aid.”
“It seems it’s a bizarre loophole,” Álvarez-Jones said. “[The program is] just so outside of the parameters.”
Immigrant advocates argue that the state has no legal authority to remove immigrants.
“States are preempted from doing immigration enforcement themselves,” Álvarez-Jones said. “This could be the state of Florida wading into federal immigration, which it’s not allowed to do.”
Vinent, of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said the rule and the rhetoric makes it all the harder to provide important services.
“When we're having to be shifting to the governor playing these political, theatrical games that are aimed outside of Florida, it's hard to focus on what we are best at doing, which is protecting immigrant rights, which is serving the immigrants that provide so much,” Vinent said.
Late Thursday, the SPLC released a statement from Paul R. Chávez, senior supervising attorney for its Immigrant Justice Project, further condemning the rule.
“Hatred and xenophobia toward migrants have no place in government," Chávez said. "Migrants and asylum seekers in Florida have fled economic hardship and political repression from Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and many other countries. This move will harm families and children whose loved ones have managed to reunite with them in Florida."
USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla., He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule