The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis move to fly migrants to Mass. stokes confusion, outrage from critics

The flights marked the latest effort by politically ambitious Republican governors to send migrants to Democrat-led cities, which critics see as a cynical ploy

A woman, who is part of a group of migrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, in Martha's Vineyard. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette/AP)

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday defended flying migrants from Texas to a Massachusetts resort island unprepared to receive them — a move that was sharply condemned by human rights advocates and Democrats and marked an escalation of GOP efforts to make a political point by sending undocumented immigrants to liberal enclaves.

In interviews with The Washington Post on Thursday, several migrants who had recently crossed the southern border said they boarded the planes after a woman approached them in San Antonio, offering work and a place to stay. They said they did not know they were headed for Martha’s Vineyard — a tiny island where wealthy vacationers spend the summer months — and believed instead that they were going to large cities. Authorities in Massachusetts said they received no heads-up and scrambled to help.

Two charter flights took dozens of migrants from San Antonio to the island on Wednesday afternoon, making stops in Florida and other states along the way, according to local officials on Martha’s Vineyard. The Florida governor’s office said the flights were part of a state “relocation program” bringing recent border crossers to “sanctuary destinations,” but it did not say how they were funded. The office of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said it was not involved.

The flights to Martha’s Vineyard marked the latest effort by politically ambitious Republican governors to send migrants to New York, Washington and other Democratic-led cities. Two buses from Texas dropped off migrants near Vice President Harris’s D.C. residence on Thursday.

GOP leaders say they are trying to send a pointed message about soaring border crossings that have strained their communities and that federal officials have failed to address. Abbott on Thursday decried Harris’s recent comments that the border is “secure,” saying Texas was “sending migrants to her backyard to call on the Biden administration to do its job.”

Critics see a more cynical ploy to score points with the GOP base from DeSantis and Abbott, who are both up for reelection and considered potential 2024 presidential candidates. Such actions can have devastating real-world consequences, opponents of the strategy said.

“Putting them on that island might have suited [DeSantis’s] political efforts to try to get the spotlight,” said Rep. William R. Keating (D), who represents Martha’s Vineyard and other parts of southeastern Massachusetts. “But it was one of the worst places to do that.”

Many of the 48 migrants said they do not know what will happen next or how long they will stay here. “I just want to start working so I can find a place to sleep,” said Yerkyn Torres, 36, speaking in Spanish. “Whether that’s here or Boston or wherever, we just want the opportunity to work.”

Torres said he arrived in Texas after journeying through seven countries from Venezuela, leaving behind his wife and two kids and hoping to find a better job in America. He said a blond woman approached him at a migrant aid center in San Antonio, asking if he wanted to go somewhere else — where there’d be jobs. He said yes.

He didn’t know he was going to Martha’s Vineyard, he said, until a pilot announced they would soon be landing.

Democratic leaders denounced DeSantis’s move Thursday, with Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) calling on the Justice Department to investigate. Lawyers said it is possible that state governments could be held liable if migrants were coerced to get onto airplanes, misled about their destinations. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston organized a group of pro bono attorneys to interview the migrants Thursday and document their path to the island. “What happened raises a number of very troubling legal issues,” Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for the group, said in a phone interview. “The legal liability runs in many different directions. That’s what we’re in the process of pinning down.”

The political intent of the flights was clear. Jeremy Redfern, a DeSantis aide, tweeted a photo of former president Barack Obama’s Martha’s Vineyard home with an added message: “7 bedrooms with 8 and a half bathrooms in a 6,892-square-foot house on nearly 30 acres. Plenty of space.”

DeSantis previewed his plans to the Republican Party’s top donors last weekend, saying he was considering transporting migrants to places like Martha’s Vineyard, according to two people present, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private event.

Addressing the flights in a briefing Thursday, DeSantis said he was attempting to block immigrants from eventually arriving in his state.

“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 and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction,” he said. “And, yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you.”

Speaking of “sanctuary” jurisdictions, the Florida governor said, “The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day is brought to their front door, they all of a sudden go berserk.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday criticized DeSantis and other Republican governors who have been busing migrants to the nation’s capital for months.

“Republican governors interfering in that process — and using migrants as political pawns — is shameful, reckless and just plain wrong,” she said.

State and federal officials have complained that Florida and other states have dropped off migrants without coordinating with state and city officials, catching governments and nonprofit organizations off guard. U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said in a statement that the failure to coordinate “can wreak havoc and do harm to individuals and those communities.”

“That is the case here,” she said. She did not say if the failure to coordinate was limited to Florida.

Republican governors have sought to focus attention on the Biden administration’s border policies, which they say are attracting more immigrants to the United States. U.S. border agents have made nearly 2 million apprehensions on the southern border this fiscal year, already surpassing the prior year’s tally with two months left to count.

An adviser to Abbott, Dave Carney, said in an interview Thursday that the migrants being flown and bused across the country are a “drop in the bucket” compared with those border states are tasked with absorbing. He welcomed DeSantis’s involvement.

“Anybody who wants to help — if there’s a mayor or a county judge or a governor wants to get a bus or get a plane or take an SUV and take people up to sanctuary cities to visualize just an inch of the problem that’s a mile wide, Texas will be grateful,” he said.

Geoffrey Freeman, the director of the airport on Martha’s Vineyard, confirmed that two Ultimate Air Shuttle charter flights arrived on the island Wednesday afternoon at about 3:12 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., respectively. Both flights took off from San Antonio and made stops in Crestview, Fla., Freeman said. One plane made a subsequent stop in Spartanburg, S.C., while the other stopped in Charlotte. Both then proceeded to Martha’s Vineyard.

Vans were waiting at the airport to pick up the passengers, he said. He added that “no one in the commonwealth of Massachusetts knew what was going on” ahead of time, echoing local officials.

Beth Folcarelli, the chief executive of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, said she was sitting in her office on Wednesday afternoon when she looked outside and saw dozens of people — men, women and children carrying backpacks and luggage — stream into the organization’s parking lot. She found a Spanish-speaking member of her staff to interpret.

Folcarelli said the migrants she encountered said they were from Venezuela and “were surprised that we weren’t expecting them.”

She said each migrant was carrying a red folder containing several documents: a basic map of Martha’s Vineyard showing the location of the airport, a trifold pamphlet with information on refugee services and a piece of paper with their name on it. She said her inbox is now overflowing with offers of help, from legal aid to immigration services.

Estrella, a 40-year-old mother who did not want to give her full name for fear of deportation, said she came from Peru with her 7-year-old daughter. She went to a migrant aid center in San Antonio after swimming across the Rio Grande into Texas, she said.

Three days later, she said, she and her daughter were on the street — the migrant aid center had said they couldn’t stay there any longer. Estrella and her daughter were pleading for food from people walking by when a woman who said her name was “Perla” approached, saying she might have a place for them in New York. “We can help you, but not here,” the woman said, according to Estrella.

On Wednesday, “Perla” came in a bus and took her to the airport with other people who had crossed the border, Estrella said. She said she boarded the plane with about 25 other migrants and four people who worked with Perla.

Republican governors are embracing an idea that was floated under the Trump administration but never deployed. As president, Donald Trump also considered shipping migrants to “sanctuary” cities, but immigration officials rejected the idea, saying using federal funds to mete out political retribution would be inappropriate.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) filed a bill last year proposing that border states send migrants to locations such as the Vineyard, where Obama and other Democratic luminaries often vacation, but the legislation went nowhere.

Abbott resurrected the idea in April and began offering migrants shuttle buses to cities such as Washington, dropping them off near the Capitol and close to television stations. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) started offering buses a month later.

Since then, nearly 10,000 migrants have arrived in the nation’s capital. Buses have also gone to New York and Chicago. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declared the situation a public emergency last week to release $10 million in city funds to help the migrants, after the National Guard rejected her pleas to step in and help.

On Thursday, Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said that while the governor’s office was “not involved” in sending the planes to Martha’s Vineyard, “Our office has had conversations with Gov. DeSantis and his team about supporting our busing strategy to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed and overrun border communities.”

Republican strategists said DeSantis’s move exemplified a Trump-like instinct for making headlines. But Adelys Ferro, executive director of the Venezuelan American Caucus in South Florida, suggested he could face political blowback.

“I believe there are going to be Venezuelan nationals who are American citizens and have the right to vote in Florida who realize that we are nothing more than pawns in Governor DeSantis’s political game,” Ferro said. “He uses us when he wants our votes, but then rejects us when it’s convenient for him.”

As the Vineyard officials scrambled Thursday to help the newly arrived, a pair of buses unloaded about 100 migrants near the Naval Observatory, the vice-presidential residence in Northwest Washington, at 6 a.m., said Ashley Tjhung, an organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Solidarity Network, a coalition of groups aiding the migrants.

“We were all so surprised,” Tjhung said. But, she said, “We were able to regroup pretty quickly and, luckily, got the situation under control.”

As in Washington, officials in other urban areas where migrants have been dropped off have complained that they lacked resources to house them. Officials also said Texas has been failing to alert them that the buses are coming, so they are caught by surprise.

But the major cities are at least close to public transportation routes, shelters and advocacy groups willing to help the migrants. Many migrants said they were grateful for the free transportation to cities where they had friends or networks willing to help.

When the planes suddenly landed at Martha’s Vineyard Airport on Wednesday afternoon, local officials in Dukes County scrambled to open shelters and find food and water for migrants. Keating, the congressman, said the sheriff called him with an urgent plea for help, saying migrants had arrived with a map and wandered miles searching for services.

The Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Martha’s Vineyard was at a conference in North Carolina on Wednesday afternoon when a parishioner called. The parishioner told him dozens of migrants had been “dumped at the airport,” he said. They had nowhere to go, she told him, and she had one question: What do we do?

The church shelters homeless residents during the harsh winters, and opened space for the migrants. Many slept in the parish hall next to the church’s sanctuary Wednesday night. Families with small children spent the night in the homeless shelter across the street. Volunteers kept vigil in case they needed anything and the church was trying to arrange for a doctor to see them.

“We’re doing what churches are supposed to do and taking care of people as they show up,” said Seadale, 61, who has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for 13 years.

In a statement Thursday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said his state is “working with all partners involved” to assist the migrants and that his administration is looking into establishing “temporary shelter and humanitarian services” at Joint Base Cape Cod.

Alejandra Pinto and her family are among thousands of Central American migrants who arrived in D.C. via buses from Texas and Arizona during the summer. (Video: Hope Davison/The Washington Post)

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Houston. Slater reported from Williamstown, Mass. Knowles and Sacchetti reported from Washington. Arelis R. Hernández in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Lori Rozsa in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Ellen Francis in London; and Antonio Olivo in Washington contributed to this report.

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