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Why Ron DeSantis is baiting Biden on the border

The Florida governor’s scheme to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard is a transparent midterms ploy.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign stop. DeSantis faces former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the November midterms election for governor.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been spending state funds for months to send migrants to Democratic cities in an effort to score political points against the Biden administration’s border policies. But after dozens of migrants were flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week as part of Florida’s copycat program, the controversy over the scheme reached a fever pitch.

Now, the policy is being challenged in federal court and is the subject of a criminal investigation. Those legal issues could eventually stop GOP efforts to continue to transport migrants to Democratic strongholds, though Republicans have already succeeded at bringing national attention to the border and playing it up as a midterms issue.

On Tuesday, three of the 48 Venezuelan migrants who were sent from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida officials on behalf of their group. They accuse DeSantis of conducting “a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme ... for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial, and political interests.”

Meanwhile, Texas authorities are investigating whether the migrants were victims of a crime. “Somebody came from out of state, preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life,” Sheriff Javier Salazar said in a press conference Monday.

DeSantis isn’t indicating he’s going to stop. There were reports on Tuesday that he was planning to charter more flights to send migrants to Delaware, near President Joe Biden’s vacation home. DeSantis refused to confirm his plans; the White House and Delaware officials prepared for the migrants’ potential arrival, though they never came.

The scheme is Abbott’s brainchild and one that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has replicated, but DeSantis has been the one in the headlines for it lately. That’s by his design. He’s currently locked in a competitive race for reelection with his Democratic opponent, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, and has used the stunt to try to revive border security as a major issue in the midterms. On Monday, he put out a new campaign ad featuring a mother whose son died in a car crash with an unauthorized immigrant in a critique of Biden’s border policies.

Voters don’t rate immigration among their top priorities nationally; it ranks behind inflation, jobs, the economy, and abortion in Florida. But while immigration isn’t a top issue for Floridians generally, it is the No. 3 issue for the state’s Republicans, according to a recent AARP/FabrizioWard/Impact Research poll. That suggests DeSantis, who’s also reportedly readying for a 2024 presidential run, is looking to cement his hawkish credentials on immigration and replicate former President Donald Trump’s success in energizing the GOP base and donors by making harsh immigration and border security a defining issue of his campaign.

To do so, however, he has uprooted people who now say they were tricked into flying to a remote part of Massachusetts. And that may lead to some legal problems.

The potential legal consequences

The migrants’ lawsuit claims that they were essentially swindled into agreeing to travel to Martha’s Vineyard aboard two flights chartered by Florida officials. The flights cost more than $600,000 in taxpayer dollars.

They argue that DeSantis and other Florida officials schemed to target migrants on the streets outside a migrant shelter in San Antonio, Texas, offering McDonald’s gift certificates and free hotel stays and promising them employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other assistance if they boarded flights to other states. Salazar said Monday that a Venezuelan migrant was paid a “bird dog fee” to recruit them.

They claim they were told they were going to Boston or Washington, DC, but instead were taken to Martha’s Vineyard, where they found no such resources nor even food or water until locals rushed to the aid of the unexpected arrivals. They were later moved to a military base shelter at Cape Cod.

The migrants accuse DeSantis and the other officials of unreasonably seizing them, violating their Fourth Amendment rights, and of inducing them to board a plane across state lines on fraudulent grounds, breaking their 14th Amendment right to individual liberty. They asked a judge to block DeSantis and the other officials from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation” and are also seeking damages, though it’s not clear who might be required to pay out those damages.

Both Abbott and DeSantis have claimed that the migrants were never misled. Instead, DeSantis tried to shift blame to the Biden administration, which he said in a press conference on Tuesday has treated migrants “horribly.”

“I think it’s opening people’s eyes to the solution, which is let’s have a secure border,” he told reporters. “The biggest stunt was Biden coming in as president and reversing Trump’s policies.” (Notably, Biden has left one of the defining border policies of the Trump era in place: the Title 42 policy.)

The migrants’ lawsuit doesn’t make any accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Texas investigators have not named any suspects in connection with their investigation, but that inquiry could lead to criminal indictments. State lawmakers in Massachusetts, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Latino rights groups have also called for a federal probe into the scheme to investigate it as possible human trafficking or kidnapping. As of yet, no such probe has been announced.

If the migrants were found to be victims of a crime, that might make it easier for them to stay in the US. Salazar said that all of the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard had been released from federal custody. Before the flight, all of them were in the US legally while pursuing their asylum claims. Because of it, they could instead become eligible to apply for a “U visa,” a humanitarian visa available to crime victims. That visa would allow them to remain in the US for four years with work authorization, apply to become permanent residents after three years, and also allow their family members to apply for visas.

How the Biden administration is responding

The Biden administration has largely dodged questions about how it intends to respond to DeSantis’s scheme, framing it as a problem concocted by Republicans for political purposes. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday that DeSantis’s “only goal, as he’s made it really quite clear, is to create chaos and using immigrants fleeing communism as political pawns.”

“It’s about creating political theater for him. It’s not about getting to a solution,” she added.

But this immediate controversy belies a deeper problem, which is red states openly defying federal immigration policy and taking matters into their own hands. That doesn’t just have political consequences, but also operational ones. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in August that “unilateral” efforts by Abbott and others to crack down on border crossings could “wreak havoc” because they can interfere with law enforcement objectives and create a situation where the US has multiple, incompatible immigration policies.

As a general rule, Democrats don’t like to talk about immigration, which has long been considered the “third rail of America politics,” and especially not in the immediate weeks preceding a midterm election in which they are cautiously optimistic about limiting Republican gains. But putting their heads in the sand on a divisive topic might not be the best defense given the current reality on the border.

The number of times officials encountered migrants on the US-Mexico border this fiscal year exceeded 2 million as of August, a historic high. Those numbers are driven by record levels of migration from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua — representing a shift from the predominantly Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran migration flows that were typical pre-pandemic.

Those numbers are inflated since many migrants have been caught trying to cross the border multiple times as a result of a Trump-era pandemic policy known as Title 42, which removed any potential adverse legal consequences of doing so.

That policy allows the federal government to bar noncitizens from entering the US “in the interest of public health.” Trump argued it helped reduce the spread of Covid-19. Biden has chosen to keep Title 42 in place for now and has used it to expel more than a million migrants this fiscal year, despite having recently declared the pandemic over and that many medical professionals say the policy does nothing to protect public health.

Part of the Biden administration’s reliance on the Trump-era policy stems from the fact that it allows the federal government to quickly and easily expel migrants; it’s a way of avoiding the formidable operational and humanitarian challenge immigration presents.

Biden maintains that he has put forth a solution; Jean-Pierre noted Tuesday that Biden had introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but the reality is Democrats don’t have the numbers they need to pass it in the Senate. That means any action Biden wants to take would have to be through the executive branch — and in a manner that won’t cause political blowback for Democrats and that won’t be limited by the courts, which have repeatedly stood in the way of his efforts to roll back Trump-era policies and set new immigration enforcement priorities.

It’s a tall task, and one the administration appears to have been unable to figure out. And that — plus voters’ concern with other issues — has left a vacuum in which GOP governors have been using migrants to whip up their base.