Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, this week surpassed his Texas counterpart Greg Abbott by sending two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts — the culmination of a months-long campaign to troll essentially liberal cities and states by displacing many asylum seekers into these communities.
The airlift, a DeSantis spokeswoman said in a statement, “was part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to places of refuge.”
She added, “States like Massachusetts, New York and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals whom they have invited to our country by encouraging illegal immigration through their designation as ‘protected states’ and supporting the policies of the create an open border for the Biden administration.”
Of course, there is no such “open border”. Many of these migrants apply US asylum laws, which give them the opportunity for a court hearing to determine whether they are eligible to remain in the United States, as thousands did during the Trump administration and the Obama administration before that. And in most cases, they were arrested by federal law enforcement officers or turned themselves in so DeSantis was able to put them on planes in the first place.
“Playing politics with people’s lives is what governors like George Wallace did during segregation,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat. “Ron DeSantis is trying to earn George Wallace’s legacy.” Moulton was referring to the “Reverse Freedom Rides” of 1962, when segregationists made false promises of jobs and housing to entice black Southerners to move north. Moulton, who briefly ran for president in 2020, generally accused Republicans of using immigration as “political football.”
The deeper problem is this: Congress has spent decades failing to revise the country’s immigration laws, which both parties recognize are utterly inconsistent with what is happening along the US-Mexico border. They differ greatly only in the proposed remedies.
But the political calculations for DeSantis and Abbott are pretty straightforward. Immigration is a powerful motivational issue for Republican-based voters, nationally, and particularly in border states like Arizona and Texas.
My colleague Astead Herndon discusses this topic on the latest episode of his podcast, The Run-Up. It’s a deep dive on the 10th anniversary of the so-called Republican autopsy of the 2012 election, in which GOP insiders called for a complete rethink of their party’s strategy on immigration and Latino voters.
As DeSantis surely knows — and he’s by all accounts a shrewd politician who tuned his ear to the GOP base’s id — Donald Trump basically did the opposite of what that autopsy recommended. During his 2016 presidential bid and long after, he made frequent and aggressive political use of Latino migrants, labeling many of them “criminals” and “rapists” during his presidential announcement at Trump Tower.
And DeSantis, who is likely to roll for re-election in the fall, is busy amassing an impressive war chest for purposes that remain both obscure and obvious. For months he’s been quietly courting Trump donors on the pretense of including her in his campaign for governor, while making sure never to stick his head too far over the parapet — lest Trump tries to steal him from his proverbial ones to slap shoulders.
More about Ron DeSantis and his administration
Rick Tyler, a former adviser to Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, said the DeSantis flights to Martha’s Vineyard were “maybe” smart politics in the context of a Republican primary, but he added, “I find it cynical to use real people as political.” Stunt figures for positioning in a presidential chess game.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre slammed the Texas and Florida governors for deliberately trying to create “chaos and confusion” in a way that was “disrespectful of humanity.” She said Fox News was notified in advance, but the White House was not.
“It’s a political ploy,” she said. “That’s what we’re seeing from governors, especially Republican governors. It’s a cruel, inhumane way of treating people who are fleeing Communism, people who are – and we’re not just talking about people, we’re talking about children, we’re talking about families.”
A report in The Vineyard Gazette, a local newspaper, reports how the migrants arrived on the island and were greeted by “a coalition of emergency management officials, faith groups, nonprofit organizations and county and city officials” who organized food and shelter for the new arrivals.
Other Democrat-run enclaves like Washington, DC and New York City have asked the federal government for help processing and housing the thousands of migrants that DeSantis and Abbott have theatrically foisted on them. Last week, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency for the nearly 10,000 migrants busted there from Texas. Eric Adams, her counterpart in New York, said Wednesday that the city’s emergency shelter system “is nearing breaking point.”
On Thursday morning, two buses dropped off a group of 101 migrants outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ home – a poisoned political chalice sent by Abbott, who tweeted, “We’re sending migrants into their backyard to ask the Biden administration to do its job.” & secure the border.”
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As an indicator of how strongly Republicans believe this issue is among their constituents, even Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a relatively dovish man who has taken a stand against Trump over his bogus stolen election claims in 2020, is now chiming in. Ducey, who rejected strong pressure from Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, to run for the Senate, is said to harbor presidential ambitions of his own.
The Massachusetts press described DeSantis’ move as a challenge to Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican whose future plans remain in flux. Baker, a moderate Northeast in the mold of previous Bay State GOP governors like Mitt Romney and Bill Weld, would have little hope of a presidential primary against DeSantis or, for that matter, Trump.
Trolling is a novel political tactic. But the general phenomenon of migrant distribution around the country is not entirely new, as my colleague Zolan Kanno-Youngs has written. As the Obama administration faced a tide of unaccompanied minors flooding facilities along the border in places like McAllen, Texas, the Department of Health and Human Services housed thousands of the children in cities across the country.
And after the protest movement in Syria turned into a vicious civil war in 2011, many Republican governors began opposing the housing of refugees in their states.
Trump also seized on this issue, calling for “a total and complete ban on the entry of Muslims into the United States until our country’s officials can figure out what’s going on” — and then attempted to implement that policy in one of his first steps as president .
Gil Kerlikowske, a former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner in the Obama administration, woke up Thursday morning to find border officials following him to his home on Martha’s Vineyard.
Kerlikowske learned that migrants had been dropped off on the island when he went to the barber’s on Thursday morning and overheard people asking why the United States was unable to secure the Southwest border.
He reminded other customers that even during the George W. Bush administration, thousands of migrants crossed the border.
“It just shows the ignorance of DeSantis,” Kerlikowske said, advising the governor to pressure members of Florida’s congressional delegation to pass new immigration laws instead. “If he wanted to highlight where the problem is, he should have sent her home to Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.”
President Biden has been pushed back from his left because some stakeholders say he is continuing Trump’s immigration policies. On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Biden after a Reuters report revealed the government had asked Mexico to take in more migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as part of a policy introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.
Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis campaign spokeswoman, said, “The governor has spoken publicly for months about transporting illegal migrants to sanctuaries.” She pointed out that in this year’s state budget, DeSantis received $12 million from the Florida Legislature for the transfers had requested.
“But what we didn’t know in the campaign was that the goal was going to be Martha’s Vineyard or that it was going to happen yesterday,” Pushaw said. “We learned that from media reports.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Peter Baker contributed coverage.
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