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Scrutiny mounts over DeSantis’s use of state funds for migrant flights

The Post's Maria Sacchetti explains why the governors of Texas and Florida sent migrants to Martha's Vineyard in September. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. — Fifty migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard amid an escalating battle between GOP governors and the White House over immigration were transported to a military base on Cape Cod Friday, as scrutiny mounted over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) use of state funds to airlift men, women and children arriving in Texas.

Florida lawmakers allocated $12 million in the state budget this year to “facilitate the transport of authorized aliens from this state” — raising questions about how the governor could justify the spending. The two Ultimate Air Shuttle flights originated in San Antonio — not Florida — according to Geoffrey Freeman, director of the airport on Martha’s Vineyard.

Two state Democratic lawmakers said Friday they will ask the legislature to instruct DeSantis to “cease his inappropriate use of taxpayer money.”

“This use of state funds is not what was intended or described in law, nor was it what was discussed in debate,” legislators Evan Jenne and Fentrice Driskell said in a statement.

The Florida governor — widely considered a potential 2024 GOP presidential contender — doubled down Friday in defending transporting the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, saying they were all intending to go to Florida. He said state officials has “had people in Texas for months” trying to figure out how migrants are reaching his state after crossing the border and how they might intercept them and divert them. He said it is difficult to find newcomers once they leave the large groups crossing the border and switch to traveling in cars or buses.

Stopping them in Texas made that easier, he said.

“Most of them are intending to come to Florida,” said DeSantis, late adding, “Our view is you have to deal with it at the source.”

DeSantis surprised federal and state officials on Wednesday by sending migrants who recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to the affluent resort island. The move is part of an ongoing campaign by DeSantis and other Republican governors in Texas and Arizona to send migrants to Democrat-heavy cities such as Washington, New York and Chicago to publicize soaring numbers of crossings this year on the southern border.

Migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard from Florida said they were surprised when they arrived on the island on Sept. 15. (Video: Reuters)

Some migrants might have ended up in these places anyway, but the unexpected arrivals are catching locals off-guard and sending them scrambling to find supplies and shelter for the newcomers. Many of the migrants are from Venezuela, a South American nation that has been engulfed in a political and economic crisis, with shortages of food, water and electricity.

Activists have also called on Biden administration officials to do more. Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the oldest Hispanic membership organizations in the country, said Friday at a news conference in Martha’s Vineyard that the governors’ flights to Democratic-majority cities and towns were a “gross abuse of power.” He called on the Justice Department to investigate the incident for possible human trafficking or civil rights violations. The Justice Department declined to comment.

Republicans defended the action, saying border cities were experiencing influxes in even greater numbers. Federal border agents have made nearly 2 million apprehensions on the southern border this fiscal year, exceeding last year’s total.

“If there is a humanitarian crisis in Martha’s Vineyard, wouldn’t it stand to reason there is a drastically more significant humanitarian crisis at the Southwest border?” the Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee tweeted Friday.

State and local politicians in Massachusetts praised the response on Martha’s Vineyard, an offshore island accessible only by air and sea, where volunteers turned out in droves to assist the migrants when they showed up carrying maps and a few belongings. Some said they had expected to arrive in a bigger city, close to public transportation, and not a small island of 20,000 people.

The state said that “the island communities are not equipped to provide sustainable accommodation.”

On Friday morning, the migrants filed out of the church they’d been sleeping in for two nights to hugs from the local volunteers. They left with full bags and new cellphones. As they boarded the three white buses that would take them to the ferry, many cried.

Eliomar Aguero, 30, put up a peace sign, smiling and thanking the dozens of volunteers waving him on. “Thank you all,” Aguero said in Spanish.

Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said the migrants will be offered “shelter and humanitarian supports” in dormitory-style rooms at Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne. State and local officials will also ensure migrants have food, shelter and other services. Baker said he plans to activate up to 125 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to aid in the relief effort. The move was voluntary, the state said, and migrants will decide on next steps from there.

In the past, the base has sheltered Louisiana residents who fled Hurricane Katrina and Massachusetts residents affected by covid-19.

“We are grateful to the providers, volunteers and local officials that stepped up on Martha’s Vineyard over the past few days to provide immediate services to these individuals,” Baker said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre accused DeSantis Friday of luring asylum seekers onto planes and buses with the false promise of jobs, only to leave them “abandoned” on the roadside “with nothing but Ziploc bags of their belongings.” Officials marooned migrants in cities and towns where nobody expected them, she said. Many migrants who arrived in the vineyard this week could not easily communicate in English.

“These are the kinds of tactics we see from smugglers in places like Mexico and Guatemala. And for what, a photo op? Because these governors care about creating political theater,” she said.

She criticized Republicans for opposing legislation that would create paths to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and expedite processing for asylum seekers and other legal immigrants, which Democrats and some Republicans have pushed to alleviate labor shortages in the United States. “They vote against policies to fix this broken system,” she said. “Stunts aren’t solutions here.”

But Republicans say they are finding — and financing — their own solutions under an administration whose lax policies have led to rising numbers of immigrants crossing into the United States illegally, creating a burden on taxpayers who must provide health care and schooling for children.

At a news conference Friday, DeSantis said his program was insulating Florida against the costs of absorbing new immigrants.

“The legislature gave me $12 million. We are going to spend every penny of that to make sure we are protecting the people of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.

The Florida governor also disputed claims that migrants brought to Martha’s Vineyard were misled about where they were heading. He said they got packets that contained a map of the island and said it was “all voluntary.”

He drew a distinction between Cubans who have arrived in South Florida for decades fleeing communism and the newcomers turning up at the southern border, who he alleged were exploiting federal immigration laws by claiming asylum to gain entry into the United States, where long immigration court backlogs mean they could wait years for a decision.

DeSantis said Wednesday’s flights were only a start: “There is also going to be buses and there will likely be more flights.”

State records show the Florida Department of Transportation paid Vertol Systems Company $615,000 on Sept. 8 — about a week before the flights — as part of the “relocation program of unauthorized aliens.”

It is unclear what specifically that money was used to pay for. A person who answered the phone at the company’s headquarters hung up on a Washington Post reporter. The company did not respond to messages requesting comment on the payment.

Vertol has donated thousands of dollars to the Florida state Republican Party and politicians such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a close ally of former president Donald Trump.

“The fact that he used state dollars, as far as we know thus far to the tune of over $600,000, to charter these planes, which sounds like an outrageous sum of money, but it’s state dollars that he’s utilizing for a political stunt,” said former Florida governor Charlie Crist, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee challenging DeSantis this year. “It just smells of high heaven.”

The Florida legislature wasn’t briefed on these plans and has not since received any information about the flights, according to a person familiar with the matter.

As politicians sparred over the legality of the Republican governors’ policies, migrants settled into the military base on Cape Cod Friday, another way station en route to a new life in America. Children kicked soccer balls and cuddled shark-shaped stuffed animals as lawyers interviewed their parents about why they fled countries such as Venezuela.

Though DeSantis described them as “illegal immigrants,” lawyers said border and immigration authorities had “paroled” the migrants into the United States — a temporary legal entry — though they cannot work legally. Many lacked government identification, some of which were seized by immigration officials, who gave them paperwork so they could travel.

“My understanding is that these individuals were in Texas pursuing legal methods of obtaining citizenship,” Driskell, who leads the house Democratic caucus, said. “So why the governor of Florida inserts himself in a federal matter, in Texas, is beyond me. And it’s certainly beyond the scope and limitations of what he’s permitted to use that money in the budget for.”

Each family’s fate will depend on their individual circumstances. Most, if not all, will face deportation hearings in immigration courts, which could take months or years. Some may ask judges to let them stay permanently, by granting them asylum, based on their fear of being persecuted in their home countries. Others may seek special protections for crime or human-trafficking victims.

Some have family and friends in the United States who can help them, others do not.

Susan Church, a Boston immigration lawyer among those aiding migrants on Friday, said migrants are free to return to Florida if they wanted to go there.

“This is just a ridiculous political ploy that puts these extremely innocent people in a terrible situation,” she said. “You can definitely see the anxiety, stress and fear on people’s faces here. They got on a plane. They ended up in a media circus.”

Sacchetti reported from Washington. Cleve R. Wootson Jr, Alice Crites and Karoun Demirjian in Washington, Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston and Joanna Slater in Williamstown, Mass., contributed to this report.

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