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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

DeSantis signs bills to expand migrant relocations and investigate voter fraud

Ron DeSantis speaking into a microphone at the podium with American flags on either side
Wilfredo Lee
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as he announces a proposal for Digital Bill of Rights, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.

Republicans say the program would help migrants by taking them to sanctuary cities. Democrats say it as a political stunt meant to serve the governor’s national political ambitions.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed bills to expand his migrant relocation program and enhance the prosecutorial power of his election police unit, furthering key components of his conservative agenda ahead of his expected White House run.

Republican lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature voted to approve the bills during a special session last week that centered on some of what have become signature priorities of the Republican governor.

One of the new laws creates a dedicated program in the governor’s office for migrant relocations and specifies that the state can transport migrants located anywhere in the country.

The legislation is meant to quell legal questions that have surrounded a flight last year that the governor’s administration used to relocate a group of South American migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The trip was paid for using money legally intended to move migrants who were located in Florida, not any other states.

The program is almost certain to facilitate future migrant flights as DeSantis continues a focus on cultural flashpoints such as immigration, as well as near constant criticism of the policies of Democratic President Joe Biden, on his way to an anticipated presidential bid.

“Florida is using all tools available to protect our citizens from Biden’s open border policies,” DeSantis wrote on Twitter. “I am glad to have signed legislation to continue the program of transporting illegal aliens to sanctuary jurisdictions. I thank the legislature for maintaining this valuable tool.”

Republicans have argued the program would help migrants by taking them to sanctuary cities. Democrats slammed it as a political stunt meant to serve the governor’s national political ambitions.

The other bill signed by the governor clarifies that the statewide prosecutor has authority to prosecute election crimes in federal and state races, a move aimed at strengthening DeSantis' election police unit.

DeSantis pushed for the creation of the election police unit last year to address Republican concerns about voter fraud, which have proliferated among conservatives following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his reelection was stolen. The unit is housed in the governor’s department of state and reviews fraud allegations and conducts preliminary investigations, with a special group of state police officers who pursue violations.

Since its establishment, some of the voter fraud cases tied to the unit have been dismissed by judges who said the statewide prosecutor did not have jurisdiction to bring charges.

Democrats, the minority party in the statehouse, have said the election police unit could dissuade people from voting and is unnecessary given that local authorities can investigate such crimes.