The decision by DeSantis to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, a summer enclave for the nation’s elite, drew a particularly harsh rebuke from Democrats who said the Florida governor had gone too far. President Joe Biden on Thursday night said that the administration has a process in place to migrants at the border and Republicans shouldn’t interfere with “political stunts.”
“Republicans are playing politics with human beings, using them as props. What they’re doing is simply wrong,” he said, speaking at a gala for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The moves by the Republican governors came just months ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Immigration continues to be a hot-button issue for many Republicans, including in Texas and Florida, where DeSantis and Abbott are seeking reelection. The way the governors are using immigration to drum up support is reminiscent of how Republicans in 2018, including former President Donald Trump, used the migrant caravans from Central America to stoke fear in an effort to keep their congressional majority.
The Republican governors’ actions this week follow months of similar transports from Abbott, who has sent thousands of migrants from the southern border to blue cities like Chicago, New York and Washington. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has also bused undocumented immigrants to the nation’s capital.
DeSantis this year convinced the Republican-led Florida Legislature to set aside $12 million to fund attempts to move migrants to other states. The governor has also said he’s prepared to bus undocumented immigrants to Biden’s home state of Delaware.
But at least three government officials said they are seeking input from the Justice Department on whether the transports are legal.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said separately on Thursday that they asked the DOJ to probe DeSantis over the migrants sent to Massachusetts. Similarly, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins said her office plans to speak to the Justice Department about the transports.
“We are looking into that case, and we’ll be speaking with members of the Department of Justice. Massachusetts isn’t the only place where this has happened,” she said at a press conference. “We have several other sister communities, whether it’s D.C., New York, California, where we’ve seen things like this, and we’re hoping to get some input from the Department of Justice about what our next steps might be, if any at all.”
During a press conference Thursday in Florida, DeSantis defended the move to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, saying the state is helping “facilitate” those who want to go to what he called a “sanctuary jurisdiction.”
Yet the situation on the ground in Martha’s Vineyard was far from what the governor characterized.
“None of them wanted to come to Martha’s Vineyard,” Lisa Belcastro, director of the Harbor Homes Winter Shelter on the island that is home to about 17,000 residents during the off-season, said Thursday in Edgartown. “They’ve never heard of Martha’s Vineyard.”
The arrival of roughly nearly four dozen migrants, including a child whom one official said needed medical attention, stunned local officials on the island, which is facing a housing crisis as its population swells. The resort community has become a vacation home for global luminaries, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Local officials said they were given little advance notice of the flights.
“It’s pretty disgusting to see that politicians are capitalizing on the difficult circumstances these families are in for a ‘gotcha’ moment and political stunt,” Julian Cyr, the state senator who represents Martha’s Vineyard, said in an interview.
The migrants were housed overnight at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown and in its parish house across the street, which serves as a homeless shelter in the winter but is typically closed in the summer. The new arrivals spent the night on cots in a small chapel behind the church or in a crowded back room at the back of the parish house.
Susan Church, a prominent immigration lawyer based in Cambridge, said in an interview that local attorneys are working with advocacy groups including the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mass Law Reform Institute to help the migrants with visa processing and to possibly look at “whether or not this was a crime, and whether or not the individuals were tricked into getting on a plane by lies and deceit.”
Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the state is exploring opening up a temporary shelter and humanitarian services at Joint Base Cape Cod.
“The Commonwealth has many resources for assisting individuals that arrive in Massachusetts with varying immigration statuses and needs and is working with all partners involved to make sure those resources are available to the migrants that arrived last night,” Baker said.
But the moderate Republican governor — who’s often loath to engage in national politics, particularly the fissures within his own party — avoided acknowledging DeSantis in his first public comment on the migrants’ arrival.
On Thursday morning, the streets around the parish where the migrants were being housed were busy with reporters, community volunteers and town residents dropping by with food deliveries and garbage bags of blankets and clothing. Cars passed by the church slowly along the narrow streets of Edgartown.
“You’ve come to the right place!” one driver shouted.
“Send them to the Obamas’,” shouted another out the window of a pickup truck. “This is America. You’re illegal.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Thursday called DeSantis’ move inhumane and a “blueprint” for sowing chaos in blue cities.
New York has seen a sharp rise in asylum seekers who also need housing, bused there by Abbott since at least early August. Adams estimated Thursday that some 11,000 unhoused individuals have arrived in New York as a result. And that’s put an immense strain on the homeless shelter system.
The city has twice violated a local right-to-shelter law in recent weeks, after failing to promptly house shelter seekers. The shelter system, which currently serves more than 55,000 people had been showing cracks before the influx.
“We are not going to be like those municipalities and states where we fly people to Martha’s Vineyard, where we put people on buses and have them fail to get the basic items they need,” he said. “This is a crisis.”
Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Abbott said Thursday that their office has spoken with DeSantis’ team about “supporting our bussing strategy” but they weren’t directly involved in the flight.
Speaking of the migrants bused by Texas, Eze said the migrants willingly choose to go to Washington, New York City or Chicago and sign a voluntary consent waiver available in multiple languages when they enter a bus.
Eze said buses are stocked with food and water and make stops along the trip to refuel and switch drivers. Migrants are allowed to disembark from the buses and buy supplies along the way.
Shia Kapos, Kelly Hooper and Janaki Chadha contributed to this report.
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