Doubts rise over whether DeSantis had budget authority to fly migrants

The law also specified that the flights should be used to transport “unauthorized aliens” — but lawyers speaking on behalf of the migrants say many who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard are seeking asylum, which puts them in a different category legally.

Two leading Florida House Democrats on Monday sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders calling on them to object to “unlawful actions” taken by DeSantis and the state agency responsible for hiring the charter company that flew the migrants to Massachusetts.

“It seems that migrants were taken from Texas, brought to Florida, and then sent to Massachusetts for political purposes,” said Democratic state Reps. Evan Jenne and Fentrice Driskell in the letter. “It also appears that some of these individuals may be Venezuelan political refugees fleeing an oppressive regime who are not unlawfully present in the United States.”

The pair also said it’s “crystal clear” that DeSantis used the funds in a way not permitted by the state Legislature.

While complicated, questions over how DeSantis used the allocated $12 million get to the heart of possible legal challenges to DeSantis’ migrant transports. Already, Democratic government and election officials, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Massachusetts US Attorney Rachael Rollins, have asked the Justice Department to investigate DeSantis over the flights. And on Monday night, Bexar, Tex., County Sheriff Javier Salazar, an elected Democrat, also said he opened an investigation into the Florida GOP governor’s transports, though he didn’t specify exactly what he was looking into.

Florida legislators in March passed a new state budget which included $12 million for the relocation program that came from interest earnings from the $5.8 billion that Congress sent to the state as part of the American Rescue Plan. The overall budget passed overwhelmingly, with only a handful of legislators voting no.

Yet a closer look into the budget process reveals that there was controversy surrounding the funds, especially when it came to Venezuelan or Cuban migrants. Both groups are politically influential in South Florida, which has a sizable population of Cubans, Colombians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who fled their homelands to escape oppressive regimes or economic turmoil.

Republican state Sen. Aaron Bean told senators earlier this year — when questioned about an identical provision that appeared in another immigration bill also pushed by the DeSantis administration — that it did not apply to those who were fleeing communist or socialist countries and had requested asylum.

“They are here lawfully and the bill would not apply to them,” Bean said during a March floor session.

Bean made his comments shortly after state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat from the Miami area, tried to get assurances that the state did not consider those fleeing countries such as Cuba and Venezuela as an “unauthorized alien.” Her amendment was voted down by a voice vote after Bean called it unnecessary.

The DeSantis administration on Monday did not respond to questions about the budget language.

But during a Monday appearance on conservative radio host Erick Erickson’s program, DeSantis once again defended the relocation program, saying he wanted to reinstate the policy under former President Donald Trump where individuals making asylum requests could not enter the country.

“Most of the people coming across the border illegally are making effectively bogus asylum claims,” DeSantis said. “If they are making asylum claims that we know … are not going to be valid … they should wait in Mexico, let that claim be adjudicated.”

Lawyers for Civil Rights, which says it represents about 30 of the migrants that were flown to Massachusetts, on Monday distributed copies of a brochure they said was handed to those on the plane. The brochure, which was first reported by the website Popular Information, talks about benefits that are available for refugees, a classification that the migrants have not obtained.

The group’s litigation director, Oren Sellstrom, told NBC News that “this is additional evidence that shows in writing that those false representations were made in order to induce our clients to travel.”

The legal group has already written both Massachusetts and federal authorities asking for a criminal investigation.

The DeSantis administration has rebuffed allegations that those who flew on the plane were misled and said people were given multiple opportunities to turn down the flights.

DeSantis’s decision to seek out millions to relocate those who were entering the country illegally was prompted by nearly 80 federally-sponsored flights into Florida that occurred last year. DeSantis first told reporters in November that he was considering a plan to bus migrants to Delaware, the home state of President Biden.

When DeSantis rolled out his budget recommendations for the 2022 session, he asked legislators for $8 million to pay for the relocation effort — and he also asked for lawmakers to pass a law that would prohibit state and local governments from contracting with companies that transport those who entered the country illegally into Florida.

When he first announced his plan, DeSantis hinted that Martha’s Vineyard would be one of the places that the migrants could be transported.

“It’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it is true,” DeSantis said back in December. “If you sent them to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard or some of these places, that border would be secure the next day.”

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