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Practical or political? An inside look at Florida State Guard's migrant interdictions

'To help — you know?” FSG member Jennie Busbin said. “To be proactive before we get invaded"
Posted at 7:12 PM, Apr 22, 2024

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It was revived to help Florida during disasters but members of the Florida State Guard find themselves chasing migrants in South Florida and beyond. The state's civilian force is in the middle of one of the hottest issues this presidential cycle — immigration enforcement.

Should it be? That depends on who you ask.

Jennie Busin, a private in the Florida State Guard, is among the members engaged in the latest deployment. The Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office deputy is volunteering her time to become a key player in an ongoing effort to protect the Sunshine State's coastline from undocumented migrants.

"To help — you know?" Busbin said. "To be proactive before we get invaded. Before Florida gets taken over."

In three-hour shifts, Busbin sits in the back of this multi-million dollar aircraft. Her goal: spot suspicious boats and flag them for interdiction by the U.S. Coast Guard.

It may sound simple, but there is a lot of tech behind the effort. At the heart of the mission is a $500,000 camera on the nose of her aircraft that does a whole lot. With super zoom, heat vision, a tracking system that can auto ID boats, even the hull numbers on the sides of them — it’s a crucial tool in spotting what officials say shouldn't be there.

"It's very advanced," Busbin said. "But it's helping Florida. It's protecting us and we need that here."
 
But does Florida need its volunteer civilian force there? That's a question that has spurred critics for months.
 
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis revived the Florida State Guard in 2021. The World War II relic originally was created to supplement the National Guard during the 1940s. Decades later, DeSantis pitched the idea as a way to help supplement emergency response during state disasters.

"Reestablishing the Florida State Guard will allow civilians all over the state to be trained in the best emergency response techniques and have the ability to mobilize very, very quickly," DeSantis said during a news conference announcing the idea in late 2021.

State lawmakers later agreed, green-lighting a cap of 400 members in 2022, which grew to 1,500 members last year. Funding growing too. What was $10 million ballooned to $107.6 million to cover facilities, boats and aircraft.

The first 120 trained Florida State Guard members cut their teeth on Hurricane Idalia's recovery last fall. More recently, things have become more divisive.

DeSantis in February tapped the State Guard to combat illegal immigration in another state, Texas. Then, just last month, the latest deployment, helping state forces already working along Florida's coast.

The governor used emergency declarations like this one to justify it, meeting the State Guard’s deployment criteria of a "state emergency." His most recent cited the crisis in Haiti.

Though the U.S. Coast Guard hasn't reported any recent surge in migration to Florida because of the violence in the Caribbean nation, DeSantis said he was being proactive, when asked about the deployment last month.

"It's the same thing we do when we do hurricanes," DeSantis said. "We will mobilize staff and sometimes those resources end up not being needed. But I would much rather do that. And then have it not be needed, then to say, well, we knew this as a possibility, but we just didn't want to do — so, we're using all the tools at our disposal here."
 
Previous efforts along Florida's coast, without the Guard, have yielded big numbers. Since January 2023, state officials said they've helped the Coast Guard stop 670 vessels carrying more than 13,500 undocumented migrants.
 
More recently not as much is happening.

"We're not seeing what we had seen before," Jay Best, a pilot working the coastal mission for Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, said.

Best flies the planes carrying the State Guard. While he said interdictions appear down, deterrence is still a vital operation.
 
"None of this is a secret," Best said. "This is an overt law enforcement action to protect the state and to deter any type of immigration coming in. To identify if there are any kind of gaps and if they are lethal. We make sure that they're supported."
 
Critics don't see things so clearly. State Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, pushed back on the claim that Florida is safer as a result of the Guard's efforts.
 
"Safe from who?" Jones asked. "The migrants? I can guarantee you if you look at the numbers, there are more individuals who are being harmed from individuals who are domestic, than the individuals who are immigrants."

Jones represents perhaps the largest population of Haitian migrants in the state. He recently sent DeSantis this letter urging Florida to use its resources to help those feeling the country, instead of turning them around.
 
Jones saw the State Guard's deployment in Florida and Texas as little more than a political attack on President Joe Biden's border policies ahead of the 2024 election. He cited stories like these, in which 25 Haitian migrants were interdicted near Florida. Drugs and weapons were reportedly on board their vessel.

"It's unfortunate that individuals are being dehumanized in this manner," Jones said. "All for the sake of politics, clickbait stories. That's not — that's just not the type of politics I signed up for."
 
In the back of that State Guard plane, Busbin wasn’t buying it. To her, the impacts were real and vital.

"Absolutely — most definitely," Busbin said. "We’re protecting Florida … It's saying something. They're getting told there are planes up there. They're watching you. They know where you are going to land. They are going to intercept you. It's slowing down, the rate. It's doing good."

Busbin's mission, known as Operation Vigilant Sentry, or OVS, remains active for the foreseeable future. It remains unclear when officials will consider the effort concluded or what the final cost will be to the Florida taxpayer.

Meanwhile, there were recent efforts to expand the governor's power over the deployment of the Florida State Guard. A bill offered earlier this year would have given the state's chief executive complete discretion for the State Guard's use. It failed to get across the finish line without a major revision eliminating the provision. Florida now waits to see if it returns in the 2025 legislative session.