Spending Down $12 Million in Pandemic Relief Money on an Immigration Stunt Isn't 'Responsible Fiscal Policy'

Ron DeSantis paid for the Martha's Vineyard migrant flights through interest earned on American Rescue Plan money, which he's said was designed "to bail out the poorly governed states.”


After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis coordinated two flights last week to relocate dozens of migrants to Martha's Vineyard, critics of the move have questioned how he financed the stunt.

Though the payments have not been definitively linked to the Martha's Vineyard flights, DeSantis' Republican administration paid an aviation company $615,000 one week before flying nearly 50 migrants to Massachusetts on Wednesday. That would come to $12,300 per head. Public records indicate that the Department of Transportation made the payment to Vertol Systems Company Inc., which is based in Oregon but has a location in the Florida panhandle, for a "relocation program of unauthorized aliens."

That relocation program is funded by the state's 2021–2022 appropriations, which allocated $12,000,000 to implement "a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law." Funds not spent in fiscal year 2021–2022 roll over to 2022–2023 to be used for the same purpose.

Judging by DeSantis' recent comments, that money is still being spent. "The legislature gave me $12 million," DeSantis said at a news conference on Friday. "We're going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we're protecting the people of the state of Florida."

According to the 2022–2023 spending bill, the $12 million pot comes from "the interest earnings associated with the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund." Part of the American Rescue Plan—a $1.9 trillion package passed last year against unanimous GOP opposition—set aside about $350 billion as relief cash for states and localities. The federal government attached few strings to how state and local governments spent the interest earned on those funds while they remained unspent.

Florida's migrant relocation fund is by no means the first example of questionably directed COVID-19 relief money, which was ostensibly doled out to cushion economic burdens imposed by the pandemic and the government's response to it. Nor is Florida the first state to use COVID relief money for immigration enforcement. Texas tapped into a similar pandemic fund to support Operation Lone Star, a border-securing program that has proven costly and controversial.

COVID relevance aside, are the Martha's Vineyard flights really "protecting the people of the state of Florida"? For one thing, the spending bill provides money for the transportation of migrants "from this state"—meaning Florida. But last week's flights originated in San Antonio, Texas. DeSantis has defended the use of his state's funds in this way by claiming Florida officials have been working in Texas "for months" to identify and divert individuals who were likely to eventually end up in Florida.

Even so, many of the immigration enforcement schemes embraced by DeSantis and other GOP governors come with hefty price tags, even if their results are sketchy. Florida's migrant transportation fund flies in the face of the fiscal responsibility DeSantis says he defends. DeSantis himself criticized the American Rescue Plan that now funds the migrant relocation program, saying the package was "designed basically to bail out the poorly governed states." When the governor signed the 2022–2023 state budget that funds the migrant relocation program, he vetoed $3.1 billion in spending and laid out tax relief for Floridians, touting his state's "responsible fiscal policies" as he did so.

Moral, legal, and economic concerns all linger, as DeSantis says there will likely be more migrants bused and flown to blue cities. Since immigrants contribute significantly to public finances through taxes, are less likely to use welfare than similarly situated native-born Americans, and are able to fill critical jobs, a fiscally responsible governor would be wise to drop the costly enforcement stunts.