By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Continuing to criticize the Biden administration’s border policies, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a controversial immigration bill and asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury to probe issues such as the smuggling of undocumented immigrant children into the state.
Flanked by law-enforcement officers at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, DeSantis announced the moves while standing behind a podium featuring a sign that said “Biden’s Border Crisis.”
DeSantis during this year’s legislative session made a priority of passing the bill (SB 1808), which includes barring state and local government agencies from contracting with transportation companies that bring undocumented immigrants into the state. Also, the bill expands a 2019 law that sought to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida.
But asking the Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury is a relatively unusual step.
DeSantis and his general counsel, Ryan Newman, filed a 12-page petition Friday that called for a grand jury to investigate issues such as smuggling or trafficking of undocumented immigrant children into Florida and whether local governments are complying with requirements to transfer custody to the federal government of undocumented immigrants who have been arrested for crimes.
The petition said, for example, that the grand-jury investigation could include looking at issues related to “parents, guardians or other family members of unaccompanied alien children who have conspired with TCOs (transnational criminal organizations) or other illicit actors to smuggle, and thus endanger, their children.”
As another example, it said the investigation could include looking at issues related to “persons and organizations who are involved, directly or indirectly, in transacting with TCOs, their members or other illicit actors to smuggle or traffic unaccompanied alien children or other illegal aliens to Florida.”
“Because the foregoing activities occur or have effects across the state, a statewide grand jury is an appropriate vehicle to examine these matters, to identify any deficiencies in current laws and enforcement methods and to recommend new or revised laws and enforcement methods,” the petition said.
DeSantis is asking the Supreme Court to impanel the grand jury for a year, with a possible six-month extension, and base it in the 10th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.
Friday’s announcements came after long-running criticism by DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody of the Biden administration’s immigration policies. Among other things, Moody has filed or signed onto lawsuits challenging the policies, and DeSantis at one point sent Florida law-enforcement officers to the border of Texas and Mexico.
“We have a sanctuary federal government right now, because the federal government has just decided that it is not going to fulfill its responsibilities to follow the law and to properly execute the laws and Constitution of the United States,” DeSantis, widely mentioned as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, said Friday.
The bill that DeSantis signed drew contentious debate before the Republican-dominated Legislature passed it in March. In part, it took aim at what Republicans described as “ghost flights” in which the federal government brought undocumented immigrants, including children, into the state. The bill bars the state and local governments from contracting with companies that participate in such transportation.
“This bill makes it clear that Florida resources will not be used to aid the Biden administration’s practice of secretly resettling illegal aliens into communities across Florida,” DeSantis’ office said in a news release Friday.
But the bill drew controversy, in part, because it came as the DeSantis administration sought to shutter shelters that provide housing and other services to unaccompanied children whose immigration or refugee status is being processed after they enter the country.
“I am worried about the type of message we are sending with this anti-immigration bill being signed into law,” Rep. Marie Woodson, D-Hollywood, said in a statement Friday. “If the state is preventing Florida faith-based organizations from providing services to children in their care, then what next will the state decide to do in their gross overreach and prevent from happening? This law is inhumane and has no place in Florida.”
During Friday’s event, DeSantis and law-enforcement officials also touted “strike forces” that will be used to try to prevent human smuggling and trafficking and such things as illegal drugs and guns coming into the state. They said an initial strike-force effort took place in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties — areas of the western Panhandle that DeSantis described as “ground zero” for undocumented immigrants traveling into Florida.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.