Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday “encouraged” state law enforcement officers to pull over drivers who are transporting migrants into the state if there is “reasonable” suspicion of a crime, as many Haitian migrants who were recently released at the U.S.-Mexico border are expected to settle in Florida.
The new policy, issued as part of a broad executive order, also prohibits state executive agencies from assisting the federal government in transporting migrants from the southwestern border to Florida. Just two years ago, though, DeSantis made his top legislative priority a law that required state and local officials to fully cooperate with federal immigration agents.
“We’ve got to take every effort we can to make sure that we’re protecting the people of Florida, and that’s what we’re doing here today,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Fort Myers, where he also announced the state is suing President Joe Biden’s administration over its immigration practices.
DeSantis also tapped former North Florida U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe to be the state’s “public safety czar,” a position whose responsibilities include carrying out the governor’s new executive order, lobbying the Legislature and advising the governor on “relevant issues.” His annual salary was not immediately disclosed.
The actions in Florida on Tuesday come as the situation at the U.S-Mexico border gets national attention amid a surge in border crossings and as immigration becomes a key issue heading into the 2022 midterm elections. Both DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody, who filed the lawsuit, are positioning themselves for reelection next year.
Some critics called the governor’s order a “fundraising gimmick” and a “political stunt.” Others said it is a “liability” for the state to direct state troopers to pull over drivers who they “reasonably” believe are transporting migrants from the southwest border and who they suspect are committing a crime, specifically, as the order notes, drug trafficking and human trafficking.
“What is reasonable suspicion of being used for human or drug trafficking when you’re just seeing a vehicle drive by? That sounds a lot like racial profiling,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said the order has a clause that says an agent or officer cannot consider a “person’s race, color, ethnicity, national origin, or other immutable characteristic.” Therefore, it does not constitute racial profiling, she said.
Smith also said a part of the order contradicts the governor’s stance that Florida law enforcement officers should fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“Now, he’s saying he won’t cooperate because it’s Biden’s policy? That sounds like DeSantis is breaking the very same law he signed into statute because it’s politically convenient,” Smith said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami said DeSantis is using the lawsuit in “another baseless attempt to recast himself in the image of former President Donald Trump.”
“Many of the migrants who have been allowed to stay since the border was cleared include families with children and unaccompanied children whom he despicably referred to as ‘illegal alien children,’ ” Wilson said.
Depending on the provision, the executive order can apply to all migrants or only those who are coming into Florida from the southwest border.
The bulk of the executive order
Many parts of the governor’s executive order will reinforce state policies and practices that have long been in place when addressing migrants in the state. But there are provisions that will mark a change in the status quo.
For instance, one provision says state executive agencies should use a federal program to confirm the immigration status of people who are seeking benefits from the state, something that they already do.
Pushaw said the provision is “reiterating the commitment.”
Another section directs the Florida Department of Children and Families to review whether facilities that house unaccompanied migrant children should be able to keep their state licenses.
Pushaw said the administration is aware of group homes and foster homes that “house unaccompanied alien children and are licensed by the state,” but did not say how many. She said the executive order is meant to help the administration better understand the situation on the ground.
Wilson said DeSantis’ concern for Florida children is “laughable” because of his opposition to mask mandates in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Children should not be used as a political pawn, which is something that only a wannabe despot would do,” Wilson said.
Kurt Kelly, the CEO and president of the Florida Coalition for Children, said he supported any efforts by the governor to ensure the maximum number of resources are going to needy children who are Florida residents.
However, Kelly noted he had heard of no recent instances of an organization unfairly prioritizing the care of undocumented minors over other children.
The order also directs state agencies to determine how expensive it is to provide services to undocumented migrants as well as to tally numbers, identities and criminal histories of migrants who are coming from the southwestern border to Florida.
“This executive order lays the groundwork to understand the true costs of illegal immigration and the Biden administration’s irresponsible open-border policy to Florida taxpayers,” Pushaw said. “Understanding the extent of the issue is the first step toward addressing it.”
Pushaw said the state does not know “the full picture of the scope of the problem” because it has not yet received the information from the federal government.
Tessa Petit, a Haitian-American who works as the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s director of operations in Miami, said her organization has heard rumors that thousands of Haitian immigrants are coming to Florida.
“There have been rumors that most of the people being released are headed to Florida, but we don’t have numbers yet,” Petit said. “We have been asking, but they have not been released yet.”
Petit said she thinks that DeSantis is playing a “political game” with a group of immigrants who have ties to Florida, capitalizing on the national attention given to Haitian migrants in Texas.
The situation at the border
DeSantis’ executive order comes after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said between 10,000 and 12,000 Haitians were released into the U.S. until their pending asylum cases are heard by an immigration judge.
Another 5,000 Haitians are being processed by DHS and 3,000 Haitians are in detention. About 4,000 Haitians were deported by plane between September 19 and September 27, according to DHS statistics.
“Approximately, I think it’s about 10,000 or so, 12,000,” Mayorkas said on Fox News Sunday when asked how many have already been released. “It could be even higher. The number that are returned could be even higher. What we do is we follow the law as Congress has passed it.”
It’s not clear how many of those Haitians with court appearances could end up in Florida. Wilson told the Miami Herald last week that “hundreds” of Haitians released at the border made their way to Florida to be with relatives or sponsors who can help strengthen their asylum claims.
Florida has the largest Haitian-American community in the country with approximately 530,000 as of 2019, according to Census figures. Other major Haitian-American communities are in New York and Boston.
‘Illegal border policies cause Florida harm’
The lawsuit is primarily focused on the so-called “catch and release” practice that former President Donald Trump and many Republicans, including DeSantis, have blamed for crimes and violence committed by undocumented immigrants.
In a 23-page lawsuit filed in federal court in Pensacola, Moody alleges many of the migrants the Biden administration has “illegally released” will come to Florida and cost the state money.
“The Biden administration’s illegal border policies cause Florida harm,” according to the complaint. “Many of the aliens illegally released by the Biden administration are arriving, or will arrive in Florida, harming the state’s quasi-sovereign interests and forcing it to incur millions of dollars in expenses.”
Moody also alleges that some undocumented immigrants coming to Florida could be gang members, drug traffickers and other criminals.
When announcing the lawsuit, DeSantis said the crimes committed by undocumented immigrants are worse than those committed by U.S. citizens “in terms of the anguish that the families face” because they could have been prevented by the federal government.
“Had the government just done its job, this would not have happened. They would not have been in their situation,” DeSantis said. “So, it’s really, really a sad thing.”
Some of these claims were mentioned by DeSantis and Moody when visiting Del Rio, Texas, in July to highlight a two-month mission by Florida law enforcement officers in helping apprehend migrants at the border city.
At the time, DeSantis said that the vast majority of migrants state personnel encountered in Texas wanted to come to Florida. If they were to reach Florida, he said it would be a “stress on public resources, schools, medical, and all of these things.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not comment on the lawsuit on Tuesday because she had not reviewed the details.
“What I will say is any Republican or any member who wants to have a constructive conversation about solutions to what we all agree is not a long-term sustainable, operational or moral approach to immigration, we’re happy to have that conversation,” Psaki said.
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Bryan Lowry and Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.