By Priscilla Alvarez and Steve Contorno, CNN
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking steps to once again send migrants to Democratic-led cities as an affront to the Biden administration’s immigration policies, joining other Republican governors who have bussed people north.
Florida has selected multiple companies to execute the next phase of DeSantis’ migrant relocation program, according to a source familiar with the process, setting in motion plans to transport migrants to other cities just as he did last year.
The new contracts come as the Biden administration grapples with an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border in anticipation of a Covid-era border restriction, known as Title 42, expiring this week. And it sets up DeSantis to once again thrust himself into the country’s fierce immigration debate just as he is expected to launch a 2024 presidential campaign.
In a statement to CNN, Florida Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Alecia Collins confirmed the state had “selected multiple vendors based on their capabilities to carry out the program.”
Republican governors have repeatedly slammed President Joe Biden’s handling of the US-Mexico border, prompting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to start busing migrants to Democratic-led cities. The White House, in response, has pushed back, calling efforts to transport migrants without coordinating with receiving cities “political stunts.”
“We’re using the tools that we have in front of us to deal with this issue,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday, referring to the growing number of migrants crossing the US southern border. “Republican officials want to do something else –they want to campaign on this issue, they want to do political stunts, that’s what we’re seeing from the Governor of Texas.”
The number of buses headed north slowed in recent months as border crossings dropped, but is ramping back up again.
Last September, DeSantis arranged for two flights to carry migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, releasing almost 50 migrants on an unsuspecting vacation community. Though derided as a stunt by the White House and roundly criticized by immigrant advocates, his exploits earned DeSantis wide acclaim from Republicans and glowing coverage from conservative media.
It’s not clear if the companies recently selected by the DeSantis administration will be tasked with transporting people from Florida or if they will operate in states near the border. As Florida sought vendors for DeSantis’ migrant transport, it repeatedly refused to divulge those specifics, telling companies those details will be provided later when their services are requested, according to procurement records.
DeSantis, too, has been coy about how he intends to use the $22 million that Florida’s legislature has set aside for his migrant transport program. At a recent news conference, DeSantis deflected when asked when the program would continue, though he hinted future action was on the horizon.
“We may be having an announcement soon about maybe a more coordinated effort to respond to what is a catastrophic failure of policy on behalf of the federal government,” DeSantis said Friday.
The state’s request for proposals to administer the transport program, released March 31, suggests changes are afoot.
In a one-page list of objectives, companies were told they would be in charge of nearly every facet of the journey, from identifying and vetting potential migrants to providing them food and lodging to coordinating their arrival and arranging for services.
That proposed arrangement marks a strategy shift from the September missions to Martha’s Vineyard, when a top aide to DeSantis, Larry Keefe, helped coordinate the flights and worked with a former Army counterintelligence agent to recruit migrants in San Antonio by offering them food and money and promising them jobs and help with the immigration process. The clandestine nature of that mission, detailed in public records and interviews, drew widespread condemnation from immigrant advocates, who called their efforts manipulative.
Now, it will be up to the companies to recruit people to transport. The DeSantis administration declined to respond when asked how its chosen vendors planned to identify and vet migrants.
But the DeSantis administration provided few additional details to vendors on the scope of the program. Companies had just four days to ask the state questions about the work and were given two weeks to respond with their offers, according to a timeline advertised by the state.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management, responding to written questions from prospective vendors, wouldn’t say where migrants will be picked up or where they will be sent to, how many migrants would be moved per trip, the typical length of the journey, how much they should expect to be paid or whether meals provided to migrants should be hot or cold.
Nor would the division provide guidance on how transport companies should connect migrants to social services once a destination is reached, as required under the program.
“Vendors should propose how they plan to identify social services at the destination and how they plan to provide information regarding social services to the participants of this program,” the division wrote in response to one question.
Vendors were told they need to provide translators for Spanish and Haitian-Creole and comply with all state and federal laws. They have been instructed to destroy any duplicates of public records created during the missions. Companies will be expected to provide on-demand transportation and will have just three days to mobilize once the state requests their services.
Only people who have been processed by the Department of Homeland Security are eligible for transportation, the request for proposals said.
As the state sought contractors to do the work, confusion lingered about what companies were being asked to do. Vendors asked repeatedly what additional “ancillary services” they needed to provide other than meals and lodging, but the state said it was up to them to propose that.
One company asked if migrants would be allowed to get off the bus before they reached their destination.
“Yes,” the state responded. “This program is entirely voluntary.”
Another question posed whether participating vendors needed plans to separate men, women and children. The state responded that it “does not anticipate” relocating children without a parent or guardian.
“The plan should ensure that all Unauthorized Alien individuals are housed in a safe and appropriate manner,” the state said.
The last question the state received inquired what documentation was needed to determine whether someone was eligible to transport.
It was up to the vendors to figure that out, the state said.
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