Questions continue to swirl around Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant relocation efforts, from his use of federal COVID aid to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, to the mysterious aviation company tasked with handling the trips.
Vertol Systems Co. Inc. was paid $615,000 by the Florida Department of Transportation to ferry 48 Venezuelan migrants to the small Massachusetts island, a popular vacation destination for some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful. Their planes touched down on Wednesday and those onboard have since been shuttled to Joint Base Cape Cod, where Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has set up a shelter.
Those who arrived in Martha’s Vineyard had been told they were going to Boston and had been given incorrect immigration advice, advocates say.
“They were told that they would have a job and they would have housing,” Elizabeth Folcarelli, who leads Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, told the Associated Press, describing the scramble for shelter as a “huge challenge.”
Julio Henriquez, an attorney who met with several migrants, said they “had no idea of where they were going or where they were.”
The little-known aviation company that handled the flights is based in Hillsboro, Oregon, and also operates in Destin, located on Florida’s Panhandle, according to its website, which is no longer online. Vertol received the payment on Sept. 8 as part of a new $12 million program established to relocate immigrants without permanent legal status, according to state records.
That fund was established in part with money accrued through the American Rescue Plan, a roughly $1.9 trillion stimulus law adopted by Congress last year.
The legislation set aside $350 billion for cities and states to boost their economies and respond to the COVID-19 health crisis. While the funds did not come without restrictions, there were virtually no set rules on how interest generated from unspent money must be used.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and fellow members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation called for a federal investigation into how Florida paid for the charter flights. The lawmakers accused DeSantis of improperly using the interest earned on federal COVID-19 relief dollars for what they dubbed an “inhumane program” in a letter sent to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Inspector General.
“If true, we believe this program misuses federal COVID-19 relief funds and violates federal law,” it reads.
“Accordingly, we request that you investigate Florida and take all necessary action — including potentially rescinding any misused funds — to stop this abuse of coronavirus relief programs.”
Speaking at a news conference in Daytona Beach on Friday, DeSantis vowed to use “every penny” set aside for the immigration relocation efforts, adding that buses and flights full of migrants paid for by his state are likely in the future.
“These are just the beginning efforts,” the Republican governor said, per CNN. “We’ve got an infrastructure in place now. There’s going to be a lot more that’s happening.”
Notably, while the money was earmarked “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state,” DeSantis’ stunt involved people who are not unauthorized and who were not located in Florida.
DeSantis on Friday, without any supporting evidence, also stated that many of the migrants would have ended up in his state.
Six buses shuttling migrants from El Paso arrived Saturday in New York City. Another dropped off more than 50 migrants outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, D.C.
Harris has since accused Republican governors of a “dereliction of duty” for “playing games” with migrants.
“These are political stunts with real human beings who are fleeing harm,” she told VICE News. “I think it is the height of irresponsibility.”
The vice president is just one of many high-profile figures and political leaders to take issue with Republican lawmakers’ latest bid to pressure the Biden administration into limiting border crossings. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Friday blasted red-state governors, calling their relocation efforts “crimes against humanity on refugees.”
“Don’t normalize this,” she said. Lying to & trafficking people for TV and clicks isn’t politics as usual. It’s abuse.”
Florida Rep. Charlie Crist — the Democratic nominee for governor — also voiced his criticisms. He tweeted an image showing the $615,000 contract between Florida and an aviation company for the “relocation program.”
“Ron DeSantis’ latest cruel political stunt was human trafficking,” he said. “We’re leading the fight to hold him accountable and make sure he’s voted out this November.”