Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accused the Biden administration last week of secretly flying migrants from the US-Mexico border to his state in the dead of night without notice, but sources tell CNN the Biden administration did brief the Florida governor’s office about the flights – and that similar transports occurred during the Trump era.
“Here’s what happens with these flights. There’s no notification to the state of Florida. These are done mostly in the middle of the night. And it’s clandestine,” DeSantis, a Republican, said at a news conference. The state has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration over the release of migrants, and for the potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, the flights represent a grievance close to home, on an issue that resonates with his base of support.
Documents obtained by CNN show that many of the flights arriving in Jacksonville over the past six months came during the daytime, while at least 15 arrived overnight, as Republicans have charged. Sources told CNN the late-night arrivals were due to travel logistics, including the length of the flights from Texas and other stops they had to make on their way.
The Department of Health and Human Services schedules such flights for underage immigrants detained at the border with Mexico, transporting them to special children’s shelters or to meet sponsors around the country.
In a November letter to Biden, five Republican congressmen from Florida echoed similar concerns, writing: “The flights that your administration facilitated in the dead of the night to secretly transport illegal migrants is indefensible and another failed attempt to dimmish (sic) the severity of the border crisis.”
But sources told CNN that the Republicans are attacking the Biden administration over a routine practice and that flights transferring migrants, including unaccompanied children, have occurred during multiple administrations, including that of former president Donald Trump, according to current and former officials.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement provided a list revealing more than 70 flights believed to be organized by the federal government to transport migrants to Jacksonville between late April and early October. Most of the listed flights fall under the Health and Human Services Department, which is charged with the care of migrant children.
Of the 47 flights that CNN was able to confirm through charter flight logs from the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, only 15 landed in Jacksonville between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. The charter logs did not have information for 30 other flights included on the list.
While DeSantis claimed the state was not notified, the Biden administration briefed the Florida governor’s office over the summer about the flights, according to a source with knowledge of the flights and confirmed by DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw.
HHS, along with other administration officials, briefed the Florida governor’s office in July about migrant flights to the state and shared how many unaccompanied children had been moved there, according to the source with knowledge of the flights. HHS doesn’t typically share information about future flights as a matter of policy, the source said.
Pushaw initially told CNN that the governor’s office had not been briefed by anyone from the Biden administration about the flights or migrants being transported into Florida. But after CNN learned about a July briefing, Pushaw acknowledged that a call took place on July 22 with HHS, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement following a request from the governor’s office.
“We were not apprised of the plans for vetting and transporting migrants after July. We requested transparency moving forward and were told flight information would be shared, but additional information was never provided,” Pushaw said, adding that state law enforcement confirmed flights that occurred over recent months.
Pushaw contended that “commercial flights are not the same thing as planes chartered by the federal government, which have been observed in Jacksonville,” adding that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official agreed in the July meeting to share additional information with Florida moving forward. According to Pushaw, the governor’s office also asked for more information on the screening process for individuals transported to Florida in August and did not receive information from HHS or DHS.
“Due to operational security concerns, ICE does not confirm future ICE Air operations until they are complete,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement. The agency said it helps transport unaccompanied minors where the Office of Refugee Resettlement — an agency under HHS — takes custody.
Many of the flights have originated in Texas, according to the source with knowledge of the flights, because HHS has two temporary emergency intake sites in the state – at Fort Bliss and Pecos – that opened earlier this year after a record number of unaccompanied children arrived at the US-Mexico border. The travel logistics from those sites can be more complicated, meaning that flights might land overnight at locations, like Jacksonville, the source said.
It is common for flights to arrive at several airports during the daytime and sometimes at night. An Office of Refugee Resettlement contractor operates the flights, according to the source.
A former senior Health and Human Services official who served under Trump told CNN these flights also occurred during the Trump administration and at times, similarly, landed at late hours of the night.
“If the flight has a legitimate purpose, it’s hard to see why there’s anything nefarious if it’s in the daytime or at night,” said Mark Greenberg, another former HHS official and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
An HHS spokesperson said in a statement that ORR facilitates travel for children in “the most expeditious way” to get them to their destination.
“As part of the unification process, ORR facilitates travel for the children in ORR’s care to their sponsors or other care providers in the most expeditious way to quickly and safely unite them with parents and sponsors,” the HHS spokesperson said.
“These modes include air and ground transportation options, taking into account child safety and wellness, and travel time. This travel may consist of flights originating from various loc