Florida may wind up hosting the migrants Gov. Ron DeSantis wanted to keep out of the Sunshine State.
DeSantis on Friday acknowledged the migrants Florida flew to a New England vacation island this week never actually stepped foot inside his state. But he insisted that the chartered flights originating from Texas — and paid for by Florida taxpayers — were needed to keep the group of mostly Venezuelan migrants from coming here.
“You got to deal with it at the source,” DeSantis said at a news conference at Daytona Beach.
But ironically, some of the migrants — who are seeking asylum after fleeing Venezuela’s communist regime and arriving at the Texas-Mexico border — may end up in Florida anyway after the state flew them to Martha’s Vineyard. An official with a Hispanic human-rights organization said Friday that many of the migrants do in fact plan to come to Florida, where they have friends or family, while they wait for their asylum claims to be heard.
“The irony is that Gov. DeSantis paid for them to be brought here,” said League of United Latin American Citizens President Domingo Garcia, who spoke to some of the migrants Friday as they were ferried from Martha’s Vineyard to a National Guard base on a nearby Massachusetts peninsula, Cape Cod.
Also on Friday, the Biden administration escalated its criticism of what it called a “cruel, premeditated political stunt.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre ripped DeSantis — widely seen as a leading Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential race — for his treatment of migrant families fleeing communism in Venezuela as “chattel.”
“These are the kinds of tactics we see from smugglers,” Jean-Pierre said. “And for what? A photo op?”
She added: “Why else would Gov. DeSantis have spent the time to charter a flight to take migrants out of a different state — not even his state, a different state ... but not bother to let Massachusetts authorities know that migrant children in need of food and shelter were about to land on their doorstep.”
The political furor began on Wednesday night, after DeSantis took credit for the two chartered flights that earlier in the day delivered the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the island vacation spot for rich elites. His administration said it was part of a newly created $12 million program to “remove” immigrants here illegally from Florida, a response to Biden failing to address the wave of migrants showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Texas has operated a similar program, busing thousands of migrants to so-called “sanctuary” cities in liberal states, where local police are limited in how they can help federal immigration authorities. Right-wing pundits had gleefully pointed to Martha’s Vineyard — outside Boston in liberal Massachusetts — as a place to transfer migrants.
And DeSantis did just that, and Fox News got exclusive video of the migrants arriving on the island.
But much remains unknown about the behind-the-scenes arrangements of the two flights.
DeSantis’ administration has yet to disclose exactly how much the flights cost taxpayers, although records show that last week, Florida’s Department of Transportation paid $615,000 to an aviation company, Vertol Systems Company Inc., to “relocate unauthorized aliens.” The company’s role, if any, in Wednesday’s flights remains unknown.
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The aviation company and the state agency did not respond to requests seeking comment on Friday.
It’s also unclear whether the flights complied with the terms of the migrant relocation program approved earlier this year by the Florida Legislature, which required that migrants be transported from Florida.
At Friday’s news conference, DeSantis told reporters that it was too challenging to find migrants here without permanent legal status coming into the state because “we haven’t seen any major movements of people into Florida like big caravans.” Instead, the contractor went to Texas to find migrants “that are trying to come to Florida, and then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions, and so they went from Texas to Florida to Martha’s Vineyard in the flight,” he said.
“What we are trying to do is profile, ‘OK, who do you think is going to try to get to Florida?’” DeSantis said. “So you’re trying to identify who’s most likely to come.”
Many details still unclear
The exact pretenses under which the migrants were enticed onto the flights remain fuzzy.
Some of the migrants have reported that recruiters told them they would be taken to Boston to receive expedited work authorization when they were in San Antonio, Texas. High-profile Democrats and human rights advocates have called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the possible “kidnapping” of the migrants.
DeSantis shot back on Friday, saying the program, which is being performed by a contractor, was strictly voluntary, and it was “false” that migrants didn’t know where they were going.
“The folks that are contracted (for the program), not only do the people give them a release form to sign, they actually give them a packet, and in that packet included a map of Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said, to laughter from supporters in the audience. “So it was obvious that that’s where they were going.”
Back on Martha’s Vineyard on Friday, the political rhetoric took a backseat to the efforts to help the Venezuelans who had sheltered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown.
The island had seen an outpouring of support from volunteers, local businesses and state officials.
Volunteers gave the migrants farewell hugs. They left on buses to applause.
For the migrants, their attention now turns to relocating and fighting to stay in the United States.
Rachel Self, a Boston immigration attorney who was conducting in-depth interviews with the migrants about their situations, alleged Thursday that agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had likely falsified the addresses of some of the migrants in their paperwork. The result, she said, is that many of them had hearings scheduled in immigration courts across the country as soon as Monday morning.
Missing them could jeopardize their chances of staying in the country.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, said many of the migrants were not asked the proper questions about whether they were “fleeing” from their home country.
“It seems like there are breaches in protocol that need to be investigated further. There seem to be anomalies in the immigration paperwork that the families were provided by government officials, and it raises a strong possibility of collusion between border officials and state actors,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Friday that he “will be demanding answers” from the Department of Homeland Security about the allegations. Representatives for the department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
McClatchy DC White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.