The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Claims that DeSantis’s migrant stunt was legitimate keep eroding

A sign depicting Gov. Ron DeSantis at a rally in Doral, Fla., against the relocation of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. (Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

For much of the summer, Republican elected officials and the conservative media amplified immigration as a point of rhetorical focus. With midterms approaching quickly and gas prices dropping, the number of people being stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border was a useful way to hammer Democrats and President Biden.

And, for much of the summer, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was the face of that rhetoric. His decision to transport newly arrived migrants from Texas to other states, including New York, was celebrated both as a triumph of political framing and, often, as a bit of trolling. From the beginning of July to the first week of September, Abbott was mentioned in the context of immigration an average of three times a day on Fox News.

Another governor perpetually hungry for the attention and applause of the right-wing ecosystem clearly noticed. So, last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) giddily took credit for an escalation of the tactic: picking up a group of migrants and plunking them down on the politically liberal island of Martha’s Vineyard. Take that, libs!

And, you know: Take that, asylum seekers fleeing the dictatorial regime in Venezuela who arrived in the United States, who appear to have been legally allowed to remain in the country and who, despite offering no indication of planning to go to Florida, suddenly found themselves on a small island off the Massachusetts coast without access to any of the resources they’d been promised!

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That aspect of DeSantis’s stunt, how it affected actual human beings, has often been glossed over in the coverage. He got his Fox News attention; the network mentioned him and migrants an average of almost nine times a day last week. But the effect on the migrants was often limited to isolated interviews or presentations from attorneys and advocates.

On Tuesday, though, several of those migrants filed suit against DeSantis and Florida for devising a “premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme” aimed at leveraging their vulnerability to score a political win. It outlines how migrants were recruited, what they were promised and how those promises were left unfilled.

The lawsuit’s description of the ploy is clearly aimed at winning a judgment against DeSantis, but it comports with other news accounts. A woman identifying herself as “Perla” (of whom there are dozens in the San Antonio area, where these events took place) approached people outside a migrant shelter. They were offered McDonald’s gift cards in exchange for signing documents that were not fully translated into Spanish.

As recruiters worked to get enough migrants to fill two planes, those who agreed to be transported elsewhere were housed in local hotels “so that they could not discuss the arrangement and reveal Defendants’ inhumane scheme to any true Good Samaritans, and so that the class members would be less likely to leave or change their minds since they were being provided free housing while they waited,” the lawsuit says.

The migrants learned they were headed to Martha’s Vineyard once on the plane, the lawsuit states. They were given folders of material, including a brochure with misleading and inaccurate information about the resources available to them upon arrival. Those orchestrating the flights allegedly told the migrants that “if the individual Plaintiffs and other class members were willing to board airplanes to other states, they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance at their arrival.” That didn’t occur; in fact, there’s no indication that anyone in Massachusetts was informed that the migrants were en route.

Importantly, the lawsuit also indicates that the three individuals identified as plaintiffs had turned themselves in to authorities upon arriving in the United States. This comports with a common practice: Many migrants cross into the country and immediately try to make asylum claims, claims that have to be made on American soil. If the plaintiffs are seeking asylum from the Venezuelan regime, they are allowed to remain in the United States until their cases can be heard. (A question to the plaintiffs’ attorneys about possible claims did not receive a response by the time of publication.)

Since reports of the migrants’ arrival on Martha’s Vineyard first emerged, DeSantis and his allies have commonly justified the move as politically warranted, the transfer of “illegal immigrants” to “sanctuary” jurisdictions comporting with a funding measure passed as part of Florida’s annual budget this year. This is the defense broadly: Florida had money to move these immigrants to other places, and DeSantis did so.

It’s just that, again, the migrants appear to have had authorization to remain in the United States. And that they were being dispatched from Florida only indirectly. And that “sanctuary” jurisdictions don’t promise what DeSantis’s defenders claim. And that DeSantis himself admits that Florida doesn’t have much of an issue with being overwhelmed by newly arrived migrants.

As Politico reported on Tuesday, the item in the state budget authorizing the removal of migrants allocated $12 million to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.” But the flights originated not in Florida, but in Texas. The planes did stop in Crestview, Fla., for less than an hour on their way to Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps in an effort to fulfill the stipulation that they be removed from the state.

Why not simply take people from Florida? DeSantis answered that on Tuesday.

“The problem is, is we’re not seeing mass movements of them into Florida,” he said. “So you end up with a car with maybe two.”

That is a problem, indeed, if you are looking to get acclaim from Fox News for shuttling immigrants to blue states as a troll. He would later add that a third of those arriving in Texas planned to head to Florida — a claim that seems hard to substantiate — so “if you can do it at the source and divert to sanctuary jurisdictions, the chance they end up in Florida is much less.”

He and his allies have repeatedly invoked this idea that they are shuttling people to “sanctuary” locations, implying that cities or states that passed “sanctuary” measures had somehow volunteered to house and employ immigrants.

“They said they wanted this,” he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Monday. “They said they were a sanctuary jurisdiction.”

That’s not what “sanctuary” is generally understood to mean. (There is no concrete definition.) Sanctuary states and cities are ones in which law enforcement promises not to inform federal authorities if they learn that someone is in the country without documentation. There’s a very practical reason for this: If immigrants think talking to police will result in their deportation, they won’t talk to police. That makes solving crimes much more difficult.

Oh, also? Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t have a sanctuary statute.

Unlike cities in Texas, robust systems also don’t exist on the island to accommodate newly arrived migrants gracefully (though, by most accounts, residents scrambled to do so). This is an underappreciated aspect of the ploy: Places such as San Antonio have far more capacity for immigrants than do small islands off the Eastern Seaboard. Yes, those resources are being strained. But there’s a difference between straining an existing system and having no system in place at all.

The available evidence suggests that DeSantis, certainly aware of the attention being granted Abbott, decided to deploy the funding at his disposal for moving migrants. Perhaps following a cue from a Fox News host, he signed off on a plan that the new lawsuit alleges involved misleading migrants to shuttle them from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard — with a stopover in Florida to make the whole thing kosher.

One of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit is Yanet. According to the filing, she arrived in the United States with her husband and 11-year-old son after fleeing Venezuela two months ago. They were detained for six days and then released, with a required check-in with authorities scheduled for next month.

“Upon arrival in Martha’s Vineyard, Plaintiff Yanet Doe felt helpless, defrauded, and desperate,” the suit claims. “She started crying. She felt anxious and confused.”

But at least DeSantis got his media attention.

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