Florida’s Ron DeSantis defends migrant flights but details remain scant

Ron DeSantis in West Bank of Palestine / Israel
Ron DeSantis visits an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. Photo Credit Governor’s Press Office (29 May 2019).

By Dara Kam and Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

Saying undocumented immigrants were sent to “greener pastures,” Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday defended Florida’s participation in a pair of flights carrying about 50 migrants, including children, that landed Wednesday at Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

While the governor’s office claimed credit for the controversial relocation effort, details remained scant Thursday about Florida’s involvement and the people now receiving care from Massachusetts residents and officials.

“If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida is a good place, our message to them is that we are not a sanctuary state,” DeSantis told reporters on Thursday during a media event in Niceville in Okaloosa County. “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.”

DeSantis’ event, unrelated to the migrant transfers, was about 30 miles from the Crestview airport where charter planes from San Antonio, Tex., landed on Wednesday before stopping in North Carolina and South Carolina en route to their final destination in Massachusetts.

Other states are transporting migrants as well

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and a handful of other Republican governors have been sending migrants to Democratic-led cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., for months, as they sharply criticize President Joe Biden’s immigration and border policies.

This week’s surprise migrant relocation to the tony Massachusetts resort community drew national attention and harsh criticism from Venezuelan-Americans in Florida during a hastily arranged news conference Thursday in Doral.

Many of the migrants are from Venezuela

DeSantis’ critics said most of the migrants transported to Massachusetts were fleeing the dictatorship of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whom DeSantis has repeatedly castigated.

Maria Corina Vegas, Florida deputy state director for the American Business Immigration Coalition, called the immigrants’ transfer “morally repulsive,” noting that the flights took place the day before the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month and accusing DeSantis of “trafficking” migrant children.

“As a Venezuelan-American myself, I was heartbroken. These are Venezuelan asylum seekers who are escaping the Maduro regime. This is a new low, even for this governor,” she said.

Criticism from officials in Martha’s Vineyard

The transfer of the migrants also sparked an outcry from elected officials in the Martha’s Vineyard area.

Massachusetts state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, a Democrat whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard, said in a Twitter post that DeSantis hatched the plan to “gain cheap political points” on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program and “MAGA Twitter.” He also called DeSantis’ actions “depraved.”

According to FlightAware tracking, two Ultimate Air shuttles flew Wednesday morning from San Antonio to Crestview in Florida’s Panhandle before traveling north. One of the planes stopped in Charlotte, N.C., the other in Spartanburg, S.C., before reaching Martha’s Vineyard.

The Vineyard Gazette reported that island officials and volunteers quickly rallied to find temporary shelter for 48 migrants from Venezuela and Colombia. Numerous reports said the group included a dozen children.

Did DeSantis relocate people seeking refugee status?

One migrant told the Gazette he came from Venezuela to the U.S., traveling through Mexico, because of the situation in his home country.

“We went through 10 different countries until we got to Texas,” he said. “There a refugee association put us in a plane and told us there would be work and housing here. I feel good, despite everything. We spent four days in Texas so it’s good to be here.”

According to an NPR report, migrants interviewed in Martha’s Vineyard said they had recently crossed the border in Texas and were staying at a shelter in San Antonio, where they were approached by a woman named “Perla” with the prospects of flying to Boston for work papers.

DeSantis defends his actions

DeSantis, who is seeking re-election in November and is widely seen as a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, for months has threatened to send undocumented immigrants to other states.

The governor blasted his critics on Thursday.

“All those people in D.C. and New York were beating their chests when (Donald) Trump was president, saying they were so proud to be sanctuary jurisdictions, saying how bad it was to have a secure border,” DeSantis said. “The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day is brought to their front door, they all of a sudden go berserk. And they’re so upset that this is happening. And it just shows their virtue signaling is a fraud.”

Who paid for the flights?

State lawmakers this year, at DeSantis’ request, tucked $12 million into the Department of Transportation’s budget for the “transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”

The budget item allowed the state agency to contract with a private company or reach an agreement with a federal agency to relocate immigrants.

DeSantis has highlighted the budget request in campaign speeches, drawing cheers from supporters when pledging to reroute undocumented immigrants to Biden’s home state of Delaware.

DeSantis last month was prepared to start busing migrants to Delaware but held off, citing a slowdown in migrants sent from the nation’s Southern border to Florida through a federal Office of Refugee Resettlement program.

DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske confirmed that the migrants relocated to Martha’s Vineyard “were part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.”

“States like Massachusetts, New York, and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration through their designation as ‘sanctuary states’ and support for the Biden Administration’s open border policies,” she said.

Fenske did not answer questions Thursday seeking additional details about Florida’s participation. She did not say if any of the migrants had been in Florida before the flights or if more flights are planned.

Martha’s Vineyard is among the U.S. locales designated as “sanctuary” cities, where officials have pledged to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Criticism in Florida of the relocation of migrants

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist called the migrants’ relocation “DeSantis’ latest disgusting political stunt — using children and families as political pawns.”

Asked in a conference call with reporters what he would do differently, Crist replied “the opposite” of what DeSantis did.

“I wouldn’t have shipped them on a plane, I wouldn’t have lied to them. I would have kept them in Florida and treated them humanely and given them comfort and make sure that they’re fed and nourished and treated like human beings,” Crist said.

Massachusetts state Sen. Julian Cyr, a Democrat who represents Martha’s Vineyard, was among critics of the migrants’ relocation who likened the action to “reverse freedom rides” that took place in the early 1960s, when segregationists tricked Black Southerners into taking bus rides to Hyannis — about 30 miles from where the migrants were dropped off Wednesday.

In an interview with the Vineyard Gazette, Cyr called the latest action “a cruel ruse that is manipulating families who are seeking a better life.”

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