WASHINGTON – Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is demanding answers from the U.S. attorney general and the Department of Homeland Security about flights carrying migrants into and through Jacksonville.
Rubio sent a letter to Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday afternoon following a series of reports from the News4Jax I-TEAM. Other lawmakers who signed the letter include Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Florida District 3, Rep. John Rutherford, R-Florida District 4, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Florida District 6, and others. (Full document below)
Rubio referred to the I-TEAM reports, which uncovered state records claiming that 78 flights with migrants have landed at the Jacksonville International Airport in the past six months. It remains unclear what’s next for the passengers or their final destination, and the I-TEAM is working to get those answers from state and federal authorities.
“I think it’s an outrage that in the secrecy and darkness of night, without revealing it to anybody, the Biden administration appears to have taken what is now 70 charter fights to drop off illegal immigrants in Jacksonville, Florida,” Rubio told News4Jax.
In his letter, he writes: “The state, local law enforcement and those elected to represent Floridians deserve to know what the federal government is doing, especially when it is a matter of public safety.”
He demands answers about the chartered flights and ground transportation including:
- Who is being transported
- Their immigrant status
- Whether they have been tested for COVID-19 or have shown proof of vaccination
- Their final destinations
- What security reviews they went through
The senator, who’s running for re-election, said he’s frustrated about the Biden administration’s lack of transparency and wants to know what’s next for the immigrants while in U.S. custody.
“It is just unreal and I think people are outraged,” he said in a video his office provided to News4Jax. “These people are completely out of control.”
In his letter, Rubio requests a full briefing as soon as possible.
The I-TEAM obtained records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, showing flights coming from southern border states like California, Arizona and Texas. Investigators with the state of Florida, working on a request from Gov. Ron DeSantis, noted that one plane had as many as 180 passengers, though the number onboard most flights is unknown.
DeSantis has been outspoken in that he feels the flights containing migrants are illegal and dangerous, although he has not cited how it’s violating the law. He said he is suing the Biden administration and hopes to stop future migrant charter flights from landing in and traveling through Florida.
Rep. Al Lawson, D-Florida District 5, has a different take. On Tuesday, he told the I-TEAM that the flights are carrying unaccompanied minors, saying the practice is morally right. Lawson was unavailable for interview, but wrote in an email:
“The program runs through HHS to safely bring children seeking asylum into our country as they await their immigration proceedings.”
Lawson added: “We are building an immigration system based on humanity and working to keep families together, process asylum claims quickly and help unaccompanied minors get placed with loving, caring and safe relatives as fast as possible. This unification process is not a new initiative. In fact, it started under the George W. Bush Administration shortly after 9/11. This is just another talking point for the Governor to stir up controversy, rouse his base and disseminate misinformation.”
The United States Department of Health and Human Services has a webpage devoted to information about policies regarding unaccompanied migrant children.
The age and immigration status of the passengers aboard the flights into and through Jacksonville are still unknown. News4Jax has filed public records requests for that information.
An HHS spokesperson told News4Jax:
“It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be swiftly unified with a parent or a vetted sponsor. 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. These modes include air and ground transportation options, taking into account child safety and wellness, travel time, and cost-effectiveness. This travel may consist of flights originating from various locations with stops/layovers in different airports. ORR has policies in place to maintain the privacy, security and well-being of minors in our care.”
A request for comment from the Department of Homeland Security’s press office has not been returned.