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DeSantis, Abbott escalate border politics with migrant flights, buses

Gov. DeSantis’ administration’s move to relocate the migrants to a relatively small island elicited a chorus of opposition.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Unite and Win Rally in support of Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at the Wyndham Hotel on Aug. 19, 2022, in Pittsburgh.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Unite and Win Rally in support of Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at the Wyndham Hotel on Aug. 19, 2022, in Pittsburgh. [ JEFF SWENSEN | Getty Images North America ]
Published Sep. 16

Ron DeSantis has regularly condemned policies he says encourage the influx of migrants to Florida, signed legislation targeting their arrival and even threatened to bus them to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware.

His move this week, however, marked the start of something different.

The Florida governor’s extraordinary decision to quietly fly migrants to the ritzy island of Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday represented an escalation in his approach to immigration, physically relocating the men and women — apparently without alerting local officials — to an area he says was chosen because of its liberal political leanings.

Combined with the decision from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday to bus migrants to the home of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C., the action ignited a national firestorm of controversy about immigration policy, management of the country’s southern border and how government officials treat migrants.

To DeSantis’ opponents, including Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist, it also presented a political opportunity.

“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.”

Other critics, including those at the White House, have called the governor’s action an unnecessary political stunt. And DeSantis’ gubernatorial rival, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking that the Department of Justice investigate the flights and whether the migrants who boarded the planes were tricked into doing so.

DeSantis defended his administration’s action, saying it’s a necessary step to take because Biden has failed to take seriously the surge of migrants at the southern border that has occurred since he took office.

Related: DeSantis stands by Martha’s Vineyard migrant decision amid criticism

He cited Massachusetts’ status as a so-called “sanctuary state,” a designation given to areas that don’t allow local law enforcement officers to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

“If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida is a good place, our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state,” DeSantis said at an event Thursday. “And 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.”

His aides took an even harder line on social media, arguing that critics complaining about the lack of notice given to local officials are being hypocritical.

“Do the cartels that smuggle humans call Florida or Texas before illegal immigrants wash up on our shores or cross over the border? No,” tweeted Jeremy Redfern, a DeSantis spokesman. “Welcome to being a state on the Southern border, Massachusetts.”

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Sending migrants to other states is not a new approach: Abbott, for instance, has been sending buses of migrants to Washington, D.C. and New York City for months. Those actions, while drawing a response from local officials, failed to generate sustained national headlines.

But the DeSantis administration decision to relocate the migrants to a relatively small island, rather than a city with more robust resources at its disposal, appeared to elicit a different response from the public, especially after Abbot’s latest bus to the nation’s capital arrived not in the city center but at the Naval Observatory, where Harris lives.

Related: DeSantis' defense of Martha's Vineyard flights prompts more questions

State officials said Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito were doing what they could to manage the unexpected influx of migrants.

“The Baker-Polito Administration is in touch with local officials regarding the arrival of migrants in Martha’s Vineyard. At this time, short-term shelter services are being provided by local officials, and the Administration will continue to support those efforts,” Terry MacCormack, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement Thursday morning.

Martha’s Vineyard, a famed vacation destination located off Massachusetts’ southern coast, includes homes owned by celebrities, business leaders, and even former President Barack Obama.

Critics say the decision put migrants in harm’s way, placing the governors’ politics above the well-being of fellow human beings. Much of the care given to the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard has reportedly been from local homeless shelters and churches, with help from the island’s government officials.

Speaking in front of Harris’ home Thursday, Domingo Garcia, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, criticized DeSantis and Abbott.

“Shame on you, Governor Abbot. Shame on you, Governor DeSantis,” he said. “These are human beings and they’re being treated like human cargo.”

Garcia said he would be traveling to Martha’s Vineyard to meet with migrants that had been transported to the Massachusetts island Wednesday by Florida and announced that his organization would begin a Stop-the-Buses campaign within the next week to try to convince immigrants in Texas border towns not to get on the buses in the first place and to use civil disobedience to try to prevent the buses from departing from Texas.

A woman, who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesda,y Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of immigrants to Martha's Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration's failed border policies.
A woman, who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesda,y Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of immigrants to Martha's Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration's failed border policies. [ AP ]

Miami Herald reporters Ana Ceballos and Ben Wieder contributed to this story.

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