Florida lawmaker challenges Gov. DeSantis on migrant flights

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The South Florida state senator late Thursday filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial decision last week to fly migrants from Texas to Massachusetts and seeking to block similar flights in the future.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, filed the lawsuit in Leon County circuit court, alleging violations of the state Constitution and a separate law.

The 13-page lawsuit emphasizes that the migrants, mostly from Venezuela, had been in Texas, not Florida, after crossing the border with Mexico. The two flights of about 50 people started in San Antonio, Texas, stopped at an airport in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview and then headed north to Martha’s Vineyard.

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A section of the state budget directed $12 million to the Florida Department of Transportation “for implementing a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.” The section also said the “department may, upon receipt of at least two quotes, negotiate and enter into contracts with private parties, including common carriers, to implement the program.”

Pizzo’s lawsuit cited part of the Florida Constitution and said “substantive” policies are required to be approved in separate laws, rather than through the budget.

“(The section of the budget) establishes a substantive policy of the state of Florida to transport aliens from this state consistent with federal law within the general appropriations act (the budget), as opposed to separately filed, presented and deliberated legislation,” the lawsuit, filed by Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, said.

The lawsuit also contends that the Department of Transportation did not follow the specific requirements of the budget section.

“Upon information and belief, defendant Department of Transportation has not developed a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state as required by (the section of the budget),” the lawsuit said. “Upon information and belief, defendant Department of Transportation has not received at least two quotes, negotiated and entered into contracts with private parties, including common carriers, to implement the program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”

Pizzo, who is listed in the lawsuit as a “citizen and taxpayer,” filed the lawsuit against DeSantis, the Department of Transportation, Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Frank Collins III, Florida’s deputy CFO and head of communications for the office, released a statement overnight that reads in part, “We are in receipt of the filing and we are currently exploring options for sanction and-or countersuit measures.”

DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske issued a statement criticizing Pizzo and noting that he voted for the budget in March. Lawmakers vote on the overall budget and not individual sections, although they can propose amendments addressing sections.

“Senator Pizzo never misses an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame and is challenging an action on an appropriation he voted for,” Fenske said.

The Sept. 14 immigrant flights have drawn international attention. On Tuesday, lawyers representing some asylum seekers flown to Massachusetts filed a potential class-action lawsuit against DeSantis, Perdue and unidentified people who helped recruit the immigrants in Texas.

State records show the Department of Transportation has paid Vertol Systems Company Inc., more than $1.5 million for “relocation of unauthorized aliens.” The department paid the company $950,000 on Monday, in addition to a $615,000 payment on Sept. 8, the records show.

DeSantis, who has long battled with the Biden administration about immigration and border policies, contends that undocumented immigrants can pose a threat to Florida through such things as bringing illegal drugs into the state. He also blasted “sanctuary” communities, such as Martha’s Vineyard.

During an appearance Tuesday in Bradenton, DeSantis reiterated that he thinks President Joe Biden should reinstate policies used by former President Donald Trump, such as a requirement for asylum seekers to remain in Mexico.

“Short of that, if you believe in open borders, then it’s the sanctuary jurisdictions that should have to bear the brunt of the open borders,” DeSantis said.

Along with addressing the state budget, Pizzo’s lawsuit contends that the DeSantis administration violated a separate state law that bars government agencies from entering contracts with transportation companies if those companies are “willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting a person into the state of Florida knowing that the person is an unauthorized alien, except to facilitate the detention, removal or departure of the person from this state or the United States.”

The lawsuit alleges that, with the flights, the state “has entered into a contract to willingly transport a person or persons into the state of Florida knowing that the person is an unauthorized alien, while not meeting any of the exceptions” in the law.

Pizzo, the former prosecutor, is seeking an injunction that would effectively prevent such flights in the future.

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