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DeSantis’s Martha’s Vineyard flights escalate GOP immigration stunts

Migrants boarded the flights after being given questionable information about what awaited them.

Florida Governor Desantis And Former President Trump Headline Conservative Student Summit In Tampa Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Dozens of migrants to the US, most of them traveling from Venezuela, were transported via private jet from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who vowed on Friday to send even more people from states like Florida and Texas to sanctuary cities and states.

Fifty people arrived via two chartered planes in Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy coastal enclave, on Wednesday after many reported being lured into the trip with promises of jobs and assistance with rent. The migrants were led to believe that they were headed to Boston; instead, they arrived at the end of the tourist season in a community, which often hosts the vacationing rich and powerful — including politicians and presidents.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has called for a DOJ investigation into DeSantis’s plan, and US Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins said in a press conference that her office is seeking the DOJ’s input on the matter. According to Rachel Self, an attorney assisting the newly arrived migrants, a representative for the Department of Justice is at Joint Base Cape Cod, where the migrants are being sheltered; the DOJ declined to comment on the matter.

In a press conference in Daytona Beach Friday, as CNN reported, DeSantis defended his plan, telling reporters that profilers have “been in Texas, identifying people 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.” DeSantis also defended approaching migrants in Texas and moving them elsewhere because he claimed “40 percent of them say they want to go to Florida.” However, the $12 million program within the Florida Department of Transportation, approved with bipartisan support by the state legislature, is supposed to be used to move people specifically from the state of Florida — unlike the migrants who were in San Antonio, Texas, before landing in Massachusetts.

Florida CBS affiliate CBS 8 found records showing that on September 8, the Department of Transportation paid $615,000 to an Oregon aviation vendor operating in Destin, Florida, under the line item “Grants and aids — Relocation program of unauthorized aliens.” DeSantis’s communications director Taryn Fenske did not answer Vox’s emailed question regarding the cost of the flights.

DeSantis’s decision to charter the flights is a high-profile addition to the series of stunts politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have pulled using migrant populations since April. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and Abbott, using taxpayer funds, sent more than 7,000 migrants from Texas and Arizona to New York City and Washington, DC, as of August, Reuters reported at the time.

Not to be outdone, Abbott on Thursday sent buses carrying as many as 100 people to the Naval Observatory, Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence, apparently in retaliation for her claims on NBC’s Meet the Press that the southern border is secure. “She’s the border czar,” Abbott told Lubbock, Texas, radio station KFYO in an interview. “And we felt that if she won’t come down to see the border, if President [Joe] Biden will not come down and see the border, we will make sure they see it firsthand. … And listen, there’s more where that came from.”

Wednesday’s planes and Thursday’s buses are part of a pattern

This week’s actions by DeSantis and Abbott are highly visible escalations in a pattern of Republican politicians moving large numbers of migrants to Democrat-run cities and states identifying as sanctuary jurisdictions — generally speaking, places where undocumented immigrants will be protected from deportation if they have not committed a serious crime.

Many of the migrants are technically traveling of their own volition, immigration attorney Camille Mackler told Vox. “From what we’re hearing, they’re choosing to get on the bus,” she said. “Whether they understand that they have other options, that’s one of the questions that we’ve been wondering. It depends on the individual as much as anything else, but they’re not getting rounded up by law enforcement on the street and put onto transport.”

Vox met a busload of migrants in Washington, DC, earlier in September and spoke to volunteers assisting them as they disembarked near the Capitol. According to one volunteer named Jessica, “We never know exactly how many people will come because they’re allowed to get off once they leave the state of Texas and so they can get off at different spots,” making it a challenge to coordinate supplies and hot meals for new arrivals. “The frustrating thing is, it’s like the design of this is that they won’t tell us officially. And so that is not an accident. They’re trying to create chaos here to prove a political point. So we get a little bit of information fed to us, but not through official channels.”

In the case of DeSantis’s flights from Texas to Massachusetts though, it’s not clear that the people on board were told the truth about where they were going and what to expect when they arrived. According to reporting from the Texas Tribune, corroborated elsewhere, the people who arrived in Martha’s Vineyard this week were approached in San Antonio by a woman offering them a free trip to Boston, where they would be provided with jobs and rent assistance. The woman gave the migrants a folder with a rudimentary map of Martha’s Vineyard showing the location of the airport, a pamphlet with information about refugee services, and a piece of paper with their name on it, Elizabeth Folcarelli, the head of local charity Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, told the Associated Press. Vox asked Fenske whether the person who approached the migrants in San Antonio worked for the state of Florida, but Fenske deferred to statements previously sent by her office.

“These are individuals who are crossing the border who are in deep, rural, desert Texas, and they’re left alone, to their own devices,” Mackler said. “They get brought to these respite centers that are set up by nonprofits, that aren’t places that you can even sleep — they just have the very, very basics.” In these kinds of conditions, especially for people who arrive without connections in the US, “you’re presenting them with an option to go somewhere.”

Fenske also did not answer emailed questions about whether DeSantis’s office coordinated with anyone in Massachusetts or Martha’s Vineyard, in particular, to send the migrants there. However, as attorney Rachel Self told Vox in an emailed statement Friday, “Volunteers reported to the church at 7 o’clock in the morning with coffee and breakfast to resume doing whatever they could to help,” and authorities coordinated transportation from the island to Joint Base Cape Cod. Self told Vox that attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, South Coastal Counties Legal Services, and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute are providing legal services for the recent arrivals, and “all the migrants were provided phones loaded with WhatsApp so they could communicate effectively and stay in touch with their lawyers.”

What will happen to the migrants shuttled to Massachusetts?

The migrants, many of whom come from Venezuela and Colombia, according to Mackler, but also Cuba, Haiti, elsewhere in the Caribbean, and, to a lesser extent, Africa and Afghanistan, make the punishing journey through South and Central America with precious few resources, with many fleeing specific threats to their lives or safety. One man from Colombia, who gave his name as Carlos, told Vox that he and his family came to the US because they were threatened by an armed group in their home country.

“There are far more individuals displaced by force — whether it’s climate or civil conflict or corruption, whatever dangers that could happen — those numbers globally have risen dramatically in the past 30-plus years,” Mackler said. “So you have more people seeking protection through the asylum laws, and that has created these crushing backlogs.”

Migrants who are applying for asylum are here lawfully, and Mackler told Vox that many people arriving now have specific, viable claims that could be upheld by immigration court. But, according to the 1996 immigration statutes signed into law by President Bill Clinton, people making asylum claims can’t get work authorization until they’ve been proven to be eligible for asylum.

With the immigration system as backlogged as it is, there’s simply no way that recent arrivals could be far enough along in the asylum process to receive work authorization. So the jobs that DeSantis and Abbott have promised to entice migrants away from border areas, if they exist at all, would be unofficial — under the table.

In an email to Vox, Self explained that many of the migrants have connections elsewhere in the US, where they would have preferred to travel “before being lured onto planes under false pretenses.” However, Mackler said there were some reports among people working with recently arrived immigrants that there has been an uptick in people arriving with no connection to the US.

That’s a situation that Self alleged DHS and the politicians sending migrants away from their states are exploiting. In a press conference the Miami Herald captured on video, Self said that the agents who processed the migrants listed on their paperwork the addresses of “random homeless shelters all across the country” as their mailing address — even though the migrants told agents they didn’t have US addresseses.

“According to the paperwork they were given, the migrants are required to check in with the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] office nearest to the fake address chosen for them by DHS or be permanently removed from the United States, with some required to check in as early as this coming Monday,” Self said. Some of the mailing addresses were as far away as Washington and Florida.

“Because these individuals are coming here without an address, I guess, somehow — I don’t know how — CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] has taken it upon itself to start looking up the addresses of organizations and putting those addresses there,” Mackler told Vox, recounting recent situations at New York City organizations that “started receiving paperwork for people they had never heard of and obviously have no ability to get in touch with because it was their information that was on the contact line.”

In terms of what happens next for the people at Joint Base Cape Cod and others who have been bussed or otherwise transported out of border states, they’ve got a long, complex, and arduous road ahead to gain legal status, work authorization, housing, and a life in the US. In her email to Vox, Self promised that “once the migrants have been able to receive legal counsel and other services, those who wish to return to the island will, of course, be able to do so,” adding that a number of people on Martha’s Vineyard “have volunteered their homes to anyone in need.”

The question of the immigration system and political stunts that are putting thousands of migrants in this precarious situation is similarly vexing. “We thought it was chaos years ago,” Mackler said. “It just keeps getting worse. It’s so hard to predict where it will go because never in my life did I think we’d end up here.”

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