‘Authoritarian’: politicians, advocates react to Ron DeSantis flying migrants to Martha's Vineyard
Florida governor Ron DeSantis. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Gov. Ron DeSantis took his bows Thursday for airlifting some 50 asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts the day before.

The move triggered a furious response from Florida Democrats, immigrant advocacy groups, and members of Florida’s Hispanic community, some of whom saw the move as authoritarian and even equated it with human trafficking.

But that reaction was the intention, the governor signaled during a news conference addressing an related topic in Niceville, in which he pretended the airlift was for the asylum seekers’ own good.

“It’s better to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction — and yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures,” he said to applause from a friendly crowd.

“All of those people in D.C. and New York were beating their chests when Trump was president, saying they were so proud to be sanctuary jurisdictions, saying how bad it was to have a secure border. 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,” DeSantis continued.

“And it just shows you, you know, their virtue signaling is a fraud.”

Critics, however, pointed to the human damage.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. Credit: Florida House of Representatives

“Today we woke up on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month to news that Venezuelan children fleeing Maduro’s socialist dictatorship were secretly human trafficked by the DeSantis regime and dumped outside Florida in order to score cheap political points,” state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith wrote on Twitter.

The Maduro comparison is in reference of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“No compassion whatsoever. Just depravity from an authoritarian governor seeking to score cheap political points with ultra MAGAs who think traumatizing vulnerable people and children is some kind of game,” Smith continued. Smith is a Democrat who represents part of Orange County.

The flights

Late Wednesday evening, the migrants, most of whom appear to be Venezuelan, were carted from San Antonio, Texas, and delivered to Martha’s Vineyard, as reported by news organizations including The New York Times.

But even though the flights originated in Texas, reportedly with stopovers in Florida, DeSantis’ aides claimed them as his work.

Taryn Fenske, communications director for DeSantis’ office, said in a written statement issued on Wednesday evening:

“Florida can confirm the two planes with illegal immigrants that arrived in Martha’s Vineyard today 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.”

Fenske noted that the 2022-23 state budget appropriated $12 million to cart undocumented migrants to other states. She says the transportation was “consistent with federal law.”

She added: “Florida’s immigration relocation program both targets human smugglers found in Florida and preempts others from entering.”

Foreshadowing

DeSantis foreshadowed the move in December during a news conference in which he denounced what Republicans call President Joe Biden’s “open borders” position, which he posited was burdening states like Florida with caring for the asylum seekers more than it did liberal bastions up North.

“It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek but it is true: If you sent [them] to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard or some of these places, that border would be secured the next day,” the governor said at the time.

“But, instead, they’re imposing the results of their policies on states like Florida, who they love to hate, or whatever,” DeSantis said.

Delaware is Biden’s home state.

DeSantis is seeking reelection in the general election on Nov. 8 and has constructed a national fundraising base from which he could mount a presidential run in 2024.

‘Wrong side of history’

Charlie Crist, the former Pinellas County congressman opposing DeSantis’ reelection as a Democrat, accused the governor of attempting to divert attention from the abortion issue, which has energized abortion-rights advocates since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“He doesn’t want to talk about it because he knows he’s in the wrong, and he’s on the wrong side of history,” Crist said of the abortion issue during a Zoom conference.

Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for governor, denounced Gov. Ron DeSantis during a Zoom call on Sept. 15, 2022. Source: Screenshot

Continuing comparisons to dictatorships, Crist called the migrant transportation as “the kind of stuff Castro would do.”

“I wouldn’t ship them around like they’re animals, like they’re cattle. I would not do that. Ron DeSantis is willing to do that,” Crist said.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, a Miami-Dade teacher union leader of Honduran descent who is running alongside Crist to be his lieutenant governor, tweeted Wednesday evening: “Venezuelan migrants who’re trying to escape a socialist dictator thought Maduro would be their biggest challenge, then came Ron DeSantis.”

She continued Thursday in another tweet: When Ron [DeSantis] & Jeannette [Lt. Gov. Janette Nuñez] said they wanted to send Hispanics fleeing tyrants to another state, they meant it. It’s cruel, and these political games must stop.”

Republican Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, like the governor, claimed that the state’s action was a result of Biden’s “lack of any U.S. border protection,” according to a written statement Thursday.

“Shame on the empty-headed pundits who now want to score cheap points by saying this relocation program, done by the state and in accordance with federal law, is ‘human trafficking.’” Patronis said. “They simply don’t want to look at the truth — the lack of any real federal immigration policy leaves us at the state level to do what we can with what we have. Biden has done nothing.”

James Uthmeier, DeSantis’ chief of staff, tweeted in response to a CNN clip on the ordeal:

“Joe Biden flies planes of immigrants into Florida and it’s perfectly fine. @GovRonDeSantis helps them get to wealthy communities that support open border policies and now it’s a hate crime? The federal government leaves these people homeless, starving, and abandoned.”

Others in DeSantis’ orbit took open delight in what they saw as the governor’s skewering of liberals.

“Martha’s Vineyard residents should be thrilled about this. They vote for sanctuary cities — they get a sanctuary city of their own. And illegal aliens will increase the town’s diversity, which is strength. Right?” DeSantis former press secretary Christina Pushaw, now in charge of “rapid response” for his reelection campaign, tweeted.

Pushaw retweeted a meme containing a parody headline: “Martha’s Vineyard resident calls police to report a Hispanic resident not operating a leaf blower.”

In fact, according to national news outlets, the community in Martha’s Vineyard leapt to provide emergency shelter for the sudden migrants, and things were running relatively smoothly, all things considered.

‘New low’

“Even for Ron DeSantis, this is a new low,’ Florida Democratic Manny Diaz said in a written statement posted to Twitter.

“There is nothing that DeSantis won’t do, and nobody that he won’t hurt, in order to score political points. He took dozens of families and children, reportedly from Venezuela and Colombia, away from everyone that they know, flew them across the country, and left them by the side of the road without shelter or direction — all in order to score political points,” he continued.

Several immigrant advocacy groups denounced DeSantis. Maria Corina Vegas, Florida deputy state director for the American Business Immigration Coalition, said in a written statement Thursday:

As a bi-partisan business coalition, we find it morally repulsive that on this, the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are talking about how Gov. DeSantis sent two planes full of Venezuelan immigrants, to Martha’s Vineyard, effectively trafficking migrant children.”

Vegas continued: “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. Job creators across the state are facing a labor-shortage crisis. Business at the key industries at the core of the Florida economy such as hospitality and agriculture are in dire need of new workers. Look around you here in Doral, where would this city be without the blood and toil of Venezuelans just like me?”

Adelys Ferro, drector of Venezuelan-American Caucus, added in a written statement:

“Immigrants are at the heart of Florida. One in five Floridians is an immigrant. Stop using Venezuelans as props for your political games! You cannot rail against Nicolás Maduro and then despise Venezuelan immigrants when they seek refuge in your state.”

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