By Nika Bigelow
In mid-September, 48 migrants taken from a San Antonio shelter landed in Martha’s Vineyard. The primarily Venezuelan migrants had crossed the Mexican border days before, then turned themselves over to border officials, hoping to file a case for asylum. But before their cases could be brought to court, a lengthy process that leaves migrants in immigration limbo, a woman approached the migrants individually. She promised them free flights to Massachusetts, cash assistance, and other benefits that in actuality applied only to refugees in the country’s official resettlement program. This woman was identified as a former military counterintelligence operative whom investigators believe was sent to Texas from Tampa to convince the immigrants to board planes.
Though the details remain hazy, it appears that Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida used funds from a $12-million state program for transporting immigrants out of Florida to send the migrants on private planes to Massachusetts. These planes were chartered through a company with ties to DeSantis. DeSantis is spearheading a strategy used by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in which Republican-led states have shipped buses with migrants to cities in blue states to protest an alleged rise in illegal immigration under President Biden.
It is clear DeSantis is testing states who advocate for immigration and drawing attention to the myriad undocumented immigrants at the southern border. However, according to The New York Times, his communications director claimed the flights were part of the state program and liberal states would “better facilitate the care of these individuals who [Democrats] have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration through their designation as ‘sanctuary states.’” In this way, DeSantis has used the migrants as human pawns in the polarizing debate over immigration, hoping to win popular support. Mr. Mirelman, a Winsor Upper School history teacher, observed, “One of the interesting things about [the issue]… is that the Venezuelan voters in Florida tend to vote Republican. DeSantis, in some way, is trying not only to appeal to the national Republican block… but also to shore up and maintain his support among Venezuelan voters in Florida.”
Though DeSantis’ power makes it hard to believe he will face any real repercussions for his involvement in the flights, the migrants have brought a suit against his administration for a fraudulent and discriminatory scheme; although states’ financing migrant travel in the US is not illegal, deceiving individuals about it is. Mirelman remarked, “Did [DeSantis] break international norms of treating humans like humans? Yes. Will there be punishment for him? No, probably not.”
As for the migrants themselves, they were helped by local community groups, churches, and restaurants upon landing in Martha’s Vineyard. Affluent Edgartown is not a place where such a large number of displaced individuals can easily be supported; in the off-season, jobs are scarce. Most of the migrants were moved to a Cape Cod military base, but it remains to be seen what will happen to these innocent individuals, exploited in a political stunt.