TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida has paid nearly $1 million to arrange two sets of flights to transport about 100 migrants who entered the country illegally to Delaware and Illinois, according to documents released Friday by the Florida Department of Transportation.
The flights would be a follow-up to the Sept. 14 flights from Texas to Martha's Vineyard that carried 49 mostly Venezuelan migrants to the Massachusetts island where former President Barack Obama owns a mansion. Local officials weren't told in advance that the migrants were coming.
Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed responsibility for the flights as part of a campaign to focus attention on what he has called the Biden administration's failed border policies. He was joining Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the tactic of sending migrants to Democratic strongholds without advance warning,
The two additional sets of flights originally were scheduled for some time before Oct. 3 but apparently were halted or postponed. The contractor hired by Florida later extended the window for the trips until Dec. 1, according to memos released by the state Department of Transportation.
Vertol Systems Company of Destin, Fla., was hired to organize the flights and sent an employee to Tallahassee, the state capital, to pick up a hard copy of a $950,000 check after the state didn't receive paperwork for a direct deposit to the company's account, according to the documents.
Vertol owner James Montgomerie didn't answer a phone call and email seeking comments about the flight plans. DeSantis' office didn't immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Earlier this year, the Legislature approved a $12 million budget item to relocate migrants who entered the country illegally from Florida to another location. The money came from interest earned from federal funds given to Florida under the American Rescue Plan.
The Treasury Department's internal watchdog is investigating whether DeSantis improperly used federal pandemic aid to fly migrants to Martha's Vineyard as part of his effort to "transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations."
While the migrant flights originated in Texas, the charter plane carrying them made a stop in Florida. DeSantis has said the migrants' intention was to come to Florida.
The documents released Friday gave no details of how migrants were recruited in San Antonio for the Martha's Vineyard flights nor who was hired to conduct that part of the operation.
The Martha's Vineyard flight has also spawned lawsuits accusing Florida of lying to the migrants to get them to agree to the flights.
MIGRANTS CERTIFIED AS CRIME VICTIMS
Also Friday, a Texas sheriff certified the 49 migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard last month to be crime victims, a move that allows them to apply for special visas to remain in the United States. The sheriff said an investigation has been opened.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar's certifications allow the mostly Venezuelan migrants to apply for special U-visas pending his department's investigation of the Sept. 14 flight to Martha's Vineyard, according to a statement released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts.
U-visas would allow the migrants to remain in the U.S. lawfully as the criminal investigation by Salazar's department and the Bexar County District Attorney's Office proceeds.
In another statement, Salazar said that "based upon the claims of migrants being transported from Bexar County under false pretenses, we are investigating this case as possible unlawful restraint," a misdemeanor offense.
"We have suspects identified, however at this point in the investigation we are not at liberty to release those names publicly or confirm any identities," he said.
The flight has been criticized as a political stunt carried out by DeSantis to appeal to his conservative base. DeSantis is running for reelection this year.
"We are grateful for Sheriff Salazar's recognition of the gravity of these events," said Carol Rose, executive director of ACLU Massachusetts. These certifications are an acknowledgment of the wrongs done to our clients and a crucial step in helping them to chart their path forward. Immigrants are human beings, not political props."
Salazar assured that "only those who were physically in our jurisdiction at the time of the offense are considered suspects." That would likely leave DeSantis out as a suspect.
A message seeking comment from DeSantis was not immediately returned.
Information for this article was contributed by Brendan Farrington and staff members of The Associated Press.