TALLAHASSEE — The day after Florida took credit for sending two planeloads of undocumented immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested the flights were to “protect” the state while the backlash swelled, with critics decrying the flights as an inhumane political stunt.
The political furor mounted as human-rights advocates rushed to the popular Massachusetts island vacation spot to help the mostly Venezuelan migrants who, for now, were being housed in a church.
“It is unconscionable to treat human beings — especially members of such a vulnerable population — like pawns to make a political point,” said a statement by Boston-based group Lawyers for Civil Rights, which announced it was gathering immigration specialists, social-service providers and attorneys to meet with the migrants free of charge and would be investigating whether they were the victims of “human trafficking and kidnapping.”
Prominent Democrats, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the pretenses of the flights.
Newsom, in a letter to the Department of Justice calling for a “kidnapping probe,” said several migrants were told by a recruiter that they would be taken to Boston and “would receive expedited access to work authorization.” The U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts announced she is consulting with the Justice Department.
One Venezuelan migrant, Andres Duarte, 30, told NPR that he crossed the border into Texas and eventually went to a shelter in San Antonio, where a woman named Perla was offering food and expedited papers in Boston.
“She [Perla] offered us help. Help that never arrived,” Duarte told NPR. “Now we are here. We got on the plane with a vision of the future, of making it ... look, when you have no money and someone offers help, well, it means a lot.”
The White House ripped the flights, with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre calling them “cruel.”
“There’s a legal way of doing this and for managing migrants,” Jean-Pierre said. “Republican governors interfering in that process and using migrants as political pawns is, is shameful, is reckless and just plain wrong.”
The news broke Wednesday night as Fox News and Martha’s Vineyard news organizations reported the surprise charter flights that dumped at least 50 migrants on the popular island vacation spot for the well-heeled. Martha’s Vineyard is an island south of Cape Cod, popular for summer vacations for rich elites and accessible only by plane or ferry.
The undocumented immigrants, who appear mostly to be from Venezuela, touched down in Martha’s Vineyard in two separate flights, one at 3:12 p.m. and another at 3:30, after making stops in Crestview, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, according to the flight tracking company, FlightAware. The two flights operated by Ultimate JetCharters, which DeSantis said he chartered, originated from Texas, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport director confirmed to 7News BostonWHDH.
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The flights were billed as part of a new program to “remove” illegal immigrants from Florida, one created by lawmakers supporting DeSantis’ hard-line stance on immigration. DeSantis, who is running for reelection and is widely considered a potential Republican front-runner for the 2024 presidential race, has claimed the program is necessary to fight back against the “Biden border crisis.”
Immigration as a political football
Illegal immigration is one of the political flash points for Republicans ahead of the November midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race, and it is a popular topic on Fox News — which was given exclusive video of the migrants arriving in Martha’s Vineyard. Republicans have long decried so-called “sanctuary” cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where local police are limited in how they can help federal immigration authorities.
Florida’s nascent program mirrors one in Texas, where Republican Gov. Gregg Abbot has touted Operation Lone Star, busing thousands of undocumented migrants voluntarily to sanctuary cities. The migrants had been released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as they await asylum or other claims to try to remain in the country.
On Thursday, two buses of migrants from Texas arrived outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence at the United States Naval Observatory, according to the Associated Press.
DeSantis, speaking at a news conference in the Panhandle town of Niceville, said the flights were part of the state’s “innovative ways to protect Florida.”
“We take what’s happening at the southern border very seriously, unlike some, unlike the president of the United States, who has refused to lift a finger to secure that border,” DeSantis said.
“We are not a sanctuary state. It’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and, yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.”
DeSantis supporters applauded the migrant transfers. Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Republican, tweeted that with the governor “targeting the elite at Martha’s Vineyard, [maybe] we’ll actually see some action take place to secure our nation’s border.”
Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, complained about the “left’s outrage.”
“The left’s outrage not being directed at the border policies incentivizing human smuggling and dangerous treks across Central America — but at chartered flights to their own doorsteps — speaks volumes,” Griffin wrote on Twitter.
Under the Legislature-approved program, the state can contract with private transportation companies to bus people to other parts of the country. But, as of Thursday, the state has revealed little about the cost of the flights or how exactly the migrants were selected and transported to Massachusetts.
Martha’s Vineyard community responds
On Friday, Massachusetts Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, tweeted photos of five migrants eating breakfast cereal gathered inside a church and three air mattresses set up inside a large room. “This is a community rallying to support immigrants children and families. It is the best of America,” he wrote.
The Boston Globe reported that local community members and businesses were stepping up to help the migrants, delivering pizzas, hot coffee, clothes, soap and toothpaste. The local high school even dismissed a group of AP Spanish students from class to go help translate.
One island resident, Rob Donovan, told the Globe that he wrote a $100 check to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, which is spearheading relief efforts.
″We love that they’re here, and I guess what we’re doing is making a political statement back at Ron DeSantis,” he told the paper. “This is what we’re going to do to show people they’re welcome in this community.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, in a statement, thanked “partners” for helping the arriving migrants and said his administration is exploring establishing Joint Base Cape Cod, a National Guard base, as a temporary shelter and to provide humanitarian services.
Back in Florida, DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in November, Charlie Crist, said the governor was shipping immigrants around “like they’re cattle.”
“When you are this inhumane in how you treat human beings, you’re not qualified to be governor of anything,” Crist said during a Thursday news conference. “And it’s just, it’s amazing to me what he’s willing to do for sheer political gain.”
Crist quoted Bible scripture, Matthew 25:40, to condemn DeSantis’ actions.
“It says something to the effect of, and it’s from Christ, ‘What you do to the least among us, you’re doing to me,’ and that’s what he’s doing to the least among us,” Crist said. “People that don’t have their freedom. They’re escaping oppression. They’re trying to seek a better life and freedom. And this is how he responds to it?”
The flights also galvanized South Florida’s sizable Venezuelan community, many of whom fled their native country’s dictatorship and dire economic straits — much like the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard. Activists rallied Thursday morning at Downtown Doral, the heart of the Venezuelan ex-pat community in South Florida.
Maria Corina Vegas, deputy state director of the bipartisan American Business Immigration Coalition, decried the demonization of immigrants needed to fill labor shortages.
“The governor likes to pander to communities like mine, traumatized by political persecution and violence,” said Vegas, who is of Venezuelan descent. “This is a new low, even for this governor.”
Yaneth Vieira, of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, fled Venezuela with her two daughters to escape repression. She said that like so many other immigrants, she settled in Florida because she has family here.
“It’s not fair that Gov. DeSantis, knowing our story ... treats us like this,” Vieira said in Spanish.
Not every Venezuelan had a problem with DeSantis’ transfer program.
Felipe García, a 53-year-old Venezuelan who has lived in Weston for more than a decade, said he supports measures to “stop this migratory wave of Venezuelans, Cubans and other nationalities that are arriving en masse.”
“I do not support illegal migration, whether of Venezuelans like me or of another nationality,” Garcia said. “I applaud what DeSantis did and what the governor of Texas has done.”
Miami Herald staff writers Ana Ceballos reported from Tallahassee, Grethel Aguila reported from Doral and David Ovalle reported from Miami.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Lawrence Mower and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Veronica Egui Brito contributed to this report.