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Why advocates fear DeSantis’ statewide grand jury on immigration

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Posted at 6:35 PM, Dec 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-08 09:42:51-05

Months before funding migrant flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made another unusual but attention-grabbing move against illegal immigration in Florida. He requested a statewide grand jury to investigate potential crimes behind the who, what, where and how migrants end up in Florida illegally.

“We have a responsibility to fight back,” DeSantis said during his June 2022 press conference, announcing the move along with other measures cracking down on what he described as “Biden’s Border Crisis.”

“The grand jury will examine the effects of those international networks on Florida and how they have violated Florida law,” he told the crowd at the time.

Florida’s Supreme Court approved his request.

Nearly six months later, we wanted to know where this probe should be.

“Florida state investigators and other individuals should have begun offering evidence to the grand jury to try to identify patterns and to identify groups of individuals or organizations that are actually engaging in this misconduct,” said Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington DC.

Arthur also served as a staff director for Governor DeSantis when he was a U.S. Representative. While Arthur is not involved in the state’s investigation, he wrote an article praising the Governor’s grand jury move, describing it as “breaking ground” and using state power to “force a change.”

“These should be the sorts of things that the Department of Justice at the federal level, and Attorney General Merrick Garland, should be investigating. And yet there seems to be a marked lack of interest in these things, even though we know that the human carnage is real,” Arthur said.

“More often than not a grand jury is to bring criminal charges, but more and more they’re used for political purposes in order to draw attention to particular issues,” explained Stephen Crawford, a Tampa-based state and federal criminal defense attorney, whose also not involved in the state’s probe.

When Crawford was asked what a state grand jury could accomplish since immigration is a federal issue, Crawford replied, “most of us have said nothing. What authority are they going to have to tell the federal government what to do… none,” he said.

While the order includes a laundry list of issues and state violations of state law the grand jury could investigate, targets include local governments, international crime groups, and families who may conspire to smuggle unaccompanied migrant children into the state.

“I think we can all agree no eight-year-old wakes up in San Pedro Soloma and decides to hire a smuggler to come to the United States. Somebody else did that for them,” explained Arthur.

Since last year, unaccompanied migrant kids have been a focus of the Governor’s efforts to thwart illegal immigration into the state.

In September 2021, he signed an executive order directing the state’s Department of Children and Families not to renew the licenses of federally funded shelters that temporarily care for children who arrive in the state without a guardian.

To date, that order has forced several to shut down.

“It’s concerning to me, it's heavily concerning,” said Melissa Marantes from the Orlando Center for Justice.

Marantes explained since the statewide grand jury was approved, several shelters for unaccompanied minors have had unscheduled visits by investigators, and some migrant children who may have been victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment, she said, aren’t getting it.

“We've seen a handful of children not being sheltered, where traditionally if the child wasn't an immigrant child, they would have been sheltered by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). We're not sure why that's happening,” she said. Despite acknowledging our request, DCF did not provide a response by the time this article was published.

It’s unknown if the state’s grand jury investigation has anything to do with those cases.

Grand jury probes, by nature, are kept secret until a final report is issued or an indictment is handed down, which in this case, could still be up to 12 months away.