After Florida’s governor learned that the Trump administration was planning to relocate illegal border-crossers to his state, he picked up the phone and called his friend, Donald Trump. The president said he didn’t know about the plan — but he killed it anyway.
“It’s not something I would approve,” Trump told the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, according to a person familiar with the call. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
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White House and Department of Homeland Security officials quickly chalked it up to a misunderstanding. A flurry of media reports citing local officials warning that the Trump administration planned to dump migrant families into heavily Democratic areas of Florida were wrong, they insisted.
The reality is more complicated. The phone call followed a confused and disorganized policymaking process that touched off virtual panic in Florida. State and local officials were quick to sound the alarm in news conferences, statements and letters to Washington that they were unprepared for the legal, political and logistical implications of the plan.
It’s just the latest example of the chaos and conflict that has defined immigration policy in the Trump administration — and another reversal on the issue from a president who implemented and then dropped a family-separation policy and repeatedly changed course on how he would fund a wall along the southern border.
The saga began May 9 when Customs and Border Protection approved a plan to transfer migrants who crossed into the country illegally from the southern border to other regions as the U.S. grapples with an unprecedented surge of immigrants who can’t be processed fast enough in southern Texas.
Federal officials say Florida was never included, but declined to release the plan to POLITICO.
But that’s far from clear: Customs and Border Patrol were telling local law enforcement officials as late as May 14 that planes full of migrant families could be coming in a matter of weeks, according to emails reviewed by POLITICO.
Two former officials say a multi-agency operation of this magnitude should have been approved by DHS and the White House but the White House and DHS declined to say whether they had done so.
When DeSantis’ aides found out about the idea and called federal officials in Washington, they were told Florida was included, according to the person familiar with the governor’s call to the president.
“There was a plan and the governor spoke to the president and it stopped,” the person said.
DeSantis, who worried that his state’s resources would be overwhelmed by immigrants, welcomed Trump’s decisive reaction. But his relief may be short-lived: The Trump administration is still considering the possibility of sending immigrants from the border to Florida and other locations on the northern border in the future, according to two DHS officials.
The back-and-forth started earlier this month when federal officials in Miami’s CBP office told Broward and Palm Beach counties to expect at least two plane loads a week of migrants who crossed the southern border near El Paso, totaling as many as 500 people a month.
Trump had recently threatened to send immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration law, but federal officials insist the plan is unrelated. Broward and Palm Beach counties are Democratic-leaning but aren’t sanctuary localities.
The two former DHS officials said South Florida was likely being considered because it has extra space in facilities built for hurricanes.
“They’ve got some extra capacity, with command centers,” said one of the former officials. “They were probably looking at that as a potential site and started doing the math.”
On May 13, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw was told to expect planes carrying migrants to start arriving in two weeks, according to an email from Troy Walker of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who said that Pete Daniel, acting chief of CBP’s Miami sector, had informed him of the timeline.
Underscoring the lack of communication, federal officials at that point were not even sure DeSantis was aware of the plan, saying “The [Border Patrol] does not know if the Florida Governor has been made aware,” read the email.
A second DHS agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had reportedly begun searching for a transportation provider to arrange ground and air transport for immigrants.
On May 14, though, Daniel began to backtrack.
“We have not been told by our Headquarters that family unit migrants are being flown to Florida,” he said in another email. “We were only instructed to conduct some contingency planning in the event it happens.”
Bradshaw told POLITICO he thought the administration was revising its plans because of the percolating political blowback as officials started to publicly speak out. “I deal with facts,” he said. “And at that point, border patrol had been telling us they were coming.”
Broward County Mayor Mark Bogen was the most vocally opposed to the plan, suggesting in a news release that the migrants stay in Trump-owned Florida properties. Bogen told POLITICO that he had not been made aware of the proposal until the middle of last week.
Bogen never saw Daniel’s May 14 email referring to the entire ordeal as “contingency planning,” but was briefed on the issue. “When we got the message on Wednesday, it looked like it was happening,” Bogen said. “We waited a full day to get verification and hoped it was not true.”
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, a former Republican member of the Florida Legislature, also said an official from CBP reached out to him because immigrants sent to those counties could end up in neighboring Martin County in significant numbers.
“They said that ‘in an abundance of caution, we are letting you know that several hundred migrants recently apprehended from the southern border are being sent to your area,'” he told POLITICO.
DeSantis’ spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said the governor’s office was not aware of the plan until Bradshaw, the Palm Beach County sheriff, held a news conference on Thursday, May 16.
Even though the plan was termed “contingency planning” at that point, it still set off alarms.
“We cannot accommodate in Florida the dumping of unlawful migrants into our state,” DeSantis told reporters on Friday. “It will tax our resources, our schools, the health care, law enforcement, state agencies.”
Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) both called the White House, according to their offices. Rubio also sent a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, asking for information while Scott called DHS to find out more.
By Saturday, DeSantis was on the phone with the president.
The two have a bond that was established at the start of the Trump administration, when DeSantis, then a House member, caught Trump’s attention with flattering appearances on Fox News. Trump later endorsed DeSantis in his 2018 gubernatorial bid, helping the Floridan politician secure a come-from-behind win. Trump then went all in for DeSantis in the general election, appearing at rallies, lending his name to text messages and steering donations to his campaign.
Since DeSantis became governor, the two men have spoken weekly, according to a person with knowledge of their calls.
“Politics is a big factor,” one of the former DHS officials said. “No one on the operational side was thinking about the politics.”
Within hours, Florida officials got the news they wanted.
Acting CBP Commissioner John Sanders said immigrants would be not be transported to Florida and blamed the media for the confusion.
“Contrary to inaccurate reports in the press, CBP has no plans to transport people in our custody to northern or coastal border facilities, which include Border Patrol stations in Florida,” he said.
Daniel Lippman contributed to this story.