Legislators in the US state of Florida have passed a bill backing efforts by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis to transport migrants and asylum seekers into Democratic-controlled parts of the United States, a push that critics have decried as “indefensible”.
The measure approved on Friday provides $10m to create a new initiative – dubbed the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program – to fund DeSantis’s plan.
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Last year, the Florida governor – a rising conservative star who is expected to seek the presidency in 2024 – joined other Republican state leaders in funding the relocation of asylum seekers to largely liberal areas of the country.
DeSantis still has to sign Friday’s bill, which allows his administration to transport migrants from anywhere in the US, before it becomes a law. The measure passed in a 77-34 vote in the Florida House along party lines, local media outlets reported.
“This bill is indefensible,” Democratic Representative Christopher Benjamin said on the state’s House floor on Friday. “They are human beings, not chess pieces. Stop playing games with people’s lives.”
In September of last year, DeSantis chartered two flights to transport dozens of migrants and asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy community in the northeastern state of Massachusetts.
The migrants arrived without advanced notice, local authorities said, sparking outrage and questions about the legality of the transfer. The White House denounced the incident at that time as cruel “political theatre”.
Over the past year, the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona also have sent bus-loads of migrants to New York City, Chicago and Washington, DC, including dozens who were dropped off near the home of Vice President Kamala Harris in December.
While many of the asylum seekers have taken such trips voluntarily, some have said that they were misled.
Massachusetts immigration lawyer Rachel Self told reporters when last year’s flights arrived in Martha’s Vineyard that the migrants “were told there was a surprise present for them and that there would be jobs and housing waiting for them when they arrived”.
Republicans have said the relocation campaign aims to bring attention to a growing immigration “crisis” at the US’s southern border, where record numbers of asylum seekers have arrived in recent months in search of protection.
Conservatives have blamed President Joe Biden for the border surge.
“The Legislature finds that the Federal Government has failed to secure the nation’s borders and has allowed a surge of inspected unauthorized aliens to enter the United States,” Friday’s bill in Florida read.
The legislation also stated that the programme aims to protect Florida from the “detrimental” effects of migration, including “increased crime, diminished economic opportunities and wages for American workers, and burdens on the education and health care systems”.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, head of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, slammed Friday’s legislation as a “state-sanctioned recipe for more partisan stunts using asylum seekers as political pawns”.
“Let’s be clear — this relocation program isn’t rooted in humanitarian concern. It’s about grandstanding and grabbing headlines by any means necessary,” O’Mara Vignarajah wrote on Twitter.
DeSantis has been making headlines for implementing far-right policies on issues of national interest, including the COVID-19 pandemic response, abortion and education. He is widely considered to be the main challenger in former President Donald Trump’s bid for the 2024 Republican nomination.