TALLAHASSEE — In a surprise announcement Wednesday evening, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office took credit for sending two planes with migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, apparently jump-starting an immigration program without revealing any details.
The governor told reporters three weeks ago that the program was on standby, and the Florida Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the immigrant relocation program, said it had no details about how it would work yet.
Things changed on Wednesday — on DeSantis’ birthday.
“Florida can confirm that two planes with illegal immigrants that arrived in Martha’s Vineyard today were part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities,” Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communication director, said in a statement.
Martha’s Vineyard is an island south of Cape Cod, popular for summer vacations and accessible only by plane or ferry.
Fox News was given an exclusive, and it showed footage of the migrants arriving in Martha’s Vineyard on its nightly, prime-time show.
“Everyone on the left has a home there. Do you think they are going to be embracing their new neighbors?” Fox News host Jesse Watters said.
Fenske did not provide further details. Among the questions that have not been answered are how many migrants were transported out of the state, how they were relocated, which private company transported them, how much those companies were paid and how the program works.
The Martha’s Vineyard Times reported that about 50 migrants arrived in two chartered planes and that at least some of them had come from Texas. The Times said at least some of the people were Venezuelan. Local authorities were housing and feeding the people, the Times reported.
Texas has been busing migrants to Washington, D.C., and New York City since April as part of a program called “Operation Lone Star,” which, similar to Florida, was launched in a rebuke to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
In Texas, the program is voluntary for migrants who show documentation that they have been processed and released by the Department of Homeland Security. The state pays for the travel expenses, according to the Texas Tribune.
Massachusetts state lawmakers and local officials shared information about the flights on Wednesday with local reporters, and there were conflicting reports as to where the planes originated.
Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Cape Cod, said one plane left from San Antonio, and that this appeared to be part of a larger campaign to divert migrants from border states, according to The Vineyard Gazette.
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“Just like the reverse freedom rides in the 1960s, this endeavor is a cruel ruse that is manipulating families who are seeking a better life,” Cyr told the Gazette. “No one should be capitalizing on the difficult circumstances that these families are in and contorting that for the purposes of a ‘gotcha’ moment.”
According to The Martha’s Vineyard Times, local officials at one point said they believed planes were coming from Texas, Florida and Alabama.
“Some of them were told lies … they were told they would receive housing and jobs immediately upon arrival, " Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, told the Times. Fernandez joined the relief effort in Martha’s Vineyard.
No details on publicly funded state program
The Florida program was funded starting July 1 after DeSantis signed this year’s state budget, which included $12 million for the initiative. Under the Legislature-approved guidelines, the state can contract with private transportation companies to bus people to other parts of the country. DeSantis had talked about sending them to Delaware, the state Biden calls home.
DeSantis’ administration has not said whether the program in Florida would work like the one in Texas, which would mean migrants who were transported to Martha’s Vineyard volunteered to be taken there at taxpayer expense.
Some Florida Democratic state lawmakers were quick to react to the news and point out that the program was publicly funded.
“Your tax dollars at work …,” state Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, posted on Twitter.
Ade Ferro, the director of the Venezuelan American Caucus, was dismayed by the news.
“The governor’s attitude does not surprise us, but the cruelty, inhumanity and lack of empathy with Venezuelan brothers and sisters, immigrants who are arriving in this country, fleeing in terror from a cruel and criminal dictatorship … never ceases to impact us,” Ferro said.
“Governor DeSantis fills his mouth talking about communism, talking about socialism, talking about authoritarianism, and he treats us like we’re trash. We will not forget it,” she added.
Ferro said the group will hold a news conference in Doral on Thursday morning to discuss the matter.
Miami Herald staff writer Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.