The day after Florida took credit for sending two planeloads of undocumented immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested the flights were to “protect” the state while the backlash swelled, with critics decrying the flights as an inhumane political stunt.
The political furor mounted as human-rights advocates rushed to the popular Massachusetts island vacation spot to help the mostly Venezuelan migrants who, for now, were being housed in a church.
“It is unconscionable to treat human beings — especially members of such a vulnerable population — like pawns to make a political point,” said a statement by Boston-based group Lawyers for Civil Rights, which announced it was gathering immigration specialists, social-service providers and attorneys to meet with the migrants free of charge, and would be investigating whether they were the victims of “human trafficking and kidnapping.”
The news broke Wednesday night as Fox News and Martha’s Vineyard news organizations reported the surprise charter flights that dumped at least 50 migrants on the popular island vacation spot for the well-heeled. Martha’s Vineyard is an island south of Cape Cod, popular for summer vacations for rich elites and accessible only by plane or ferry.
The exact route of the flights remain unclear on Thursday, although one Massachusetts Democratic lawmaker told reporters one flight left from San Antonio. The website Flightaware shows one flight originated in San Antonio, stopped in Crestview, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, before landing in Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday afternoon.
The flights were billed as part of a new program to “remove” illegal immigrants from Florida, one created by lawmakers supporting DeSantis’ hard-line stance on immigration. DeSantis, who is running for re-election and is widely considered a potential Republican front-runner for the 2024 presidential race, has claimed the program is necessary to fight back against the “Biden border crisis.”
Immigration as a political football
Illegal immigration is one of the political flash points for Republicans ahead of the November midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race, and is a popular topic on Fox News — which was given exclusive video of the migrants arriving in Martha’s Vineyard. Republicans have long decried so-called “sanctuary” cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where local police are limited in how they can help federal immigration authorities.
Florida’s nascent program mirrors one in Texas, where Gov. Gregg Abbot has touted “Operation Lone Star,” busing thousands of undocumented migrants voluntarily to sanctuary cities. The migrants had been released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as they await asylum or other claims to try and remain in the country.
DeSantis, speaking at a press conference in Niceville, said the flights were part of the state’s “innovative ways to protect Florida.”
“We take what’s happening at the southern border very seriously, unlike some, unlike the president of the United States who has refused to lift a finger to secure that border,” DeSantis said.
“We are not a sanctuary state. 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.”
Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, complained about the “left’s outrage.”
“The left’s outrage not being directed at the border policies incentivizing human smuggling and dangerous treks across Central America — but at chartered lights to their own doorsteps — speaks volumes,” Griffin wrote on Twitter.
Under the Legislature-approved program, the state can contract with private transportation companies to bus people to other parts of the country. But as of Thursday, the state has revealed little about the cost of the flights or how exactly the migrants were selected and transported to Massachusetts.
Martha’s Vineyard community responds
On Friday, Massachusetts Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, tweeted photos of five migrants eating breakfast cereal, gathered inside a church and three air mattresses set up inside a large room. “This is a community rallying to support immigrants children and families. It is the best of America,” he wrote.
The Boston Globe reported that local community members and businesses were stepping up to help the migrants, delivering pizzas, hot coffee, clothes, soap and toothpaste.
One island resident, Rob Donovan, told the Globe that he wrote a $100 check to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, which is spearheading relief efforts.
″We love that they’re here, and I guess what we’re doing is making a political statement back at Ron DeSantis,” he told the paper. “This is what we’re going to do to show people they’re welcome in this community.”
Back in Florida, DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in November, Charlie Crist, said the governor was shipping immigrants around “like they’re cattle.”
“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.”
Crist quoted Bible scripture, Matthew 25:40, to condemn DeSantis’ actions.
“It says something to the effect of, and it’s from Christ, ‘What you do to the least among us, you’re doing to me,’ and that’s what he’s doing to the least among us,” Crist said. “People that don’t have their freedom. They’re escaping oppression. They’re trying to seek a better life and freedom. And this is how he responds to it?”
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.
Miami Herald staff writers Ana Ceballos reported from Tallahassee and David Ovalle reported from Miami.
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