Last week, a group of roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants touched down on Martha’s Vineyard, surprising local officials while simultaneously catapulting the island into a national conversation about immigration and the plans by Republican governors to ship migrants away from the border.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for the two charter planes that made their way to Massachusetts, but the overall strategy did not originate with him. Where did DeSantis get the idea and what changes did he make? Were the migrants “lured” into their travels under false pretenses, as a Texas Sheriff recently said? What does the future of this debate look like?
On Wednesday, Michael Barbaro of The New York Times invited immigration reporter Miriam Jordan onto his podcast “The Daily,” to detail her reporting and answer these questions. “The Daily” is one of the most popular podcasts in the country, and the insights offered by Jordan and Barbaro give new context to the drama that unfolded on Martha’s Vineyard.
“The culmination of a monthslong strategy”
To understand why DeSantis paid to fly migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, one must first understand the actions of another prominent Republican Governor: Greg Abbott of Texas.
As the number of migrant arrivals reported along the U.S.-Mexico border reaches all-time highs, Abbott announced in April that he had a plan to address the issue. In a shot at President Biden and his administration, Abbott decided to charter buses and send migrants to Washington, D.C., Jordan said. They would be dropped off at the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
That timing, Jordan said, was deliberate. In the spring, Abbott and his fellow Republicans were worried that a public emergency health order called Title 42 enacted early in the pandemic would expire in May. The activation of Title 42 was ostensibly to slow the spread of COVID, but it allowed border agents to swiftly expel many migrants trying to enter the country.
Although Title 42 was kept in place due to a lawsuit by Republican states, many migrants still sought to enter the country. In particular, the number of people coming from Venezuela continued to rise. Since the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Venezuela, migrants coming from the country are less likely to be sent back home, Jordan said.
Venezuelans are the fastest-growing group arriving at the U.S. border, and the country has the second-largest displaced population in the world, Jordan said.
Typically, she added, migrants seeking asylum turn themselves in to border patrol. This was the case for many Venezuelans. Migrants are then processed and released by authorities to local shelters.
So Texas officials, under the direction of Abbott, approached migrants recently leaving these shelters and offered them free rides to Washington, D.C. The invitation appealed to many, as the nation’s capital is home to many job opportunities. Most migrants are eager to begin working so that they can send money home to their families, Jordan said.
Buses full of migrants began to stream into Washington at all hours of the day. Eventually, as many as five buses arrived in one day, according to Jordan. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey followed Abbott’s lead, sending migrants from his state as well.
By early August, Abbott had delivered more than 6,200 migrants from the southern border to Washington, D.C., Jordan said. New York City and Chicago also became a destination for the migrants.
Escalation by DeSantis
As Abbott and Ducey continued to send migrants to major northern cities, DeSantis saw the cachet Abbott’s plan was getting within conservative circles and decided to take his tactics a step further, Jordan said.
So DeSantis chose Martha’s Vineyard as a new destination for his operation. The island was seemingly chosen, Jordan said, because of its long history as a vacation spot for wealthy liberals and Democratic politicians.
“DeSantis basically reignited the whole firestorm that was started by Abbott,” Jordan said.
But how to convince migrants to fly to the island? Through their reporting, Jordan and her colleagues at the Times found that a woman going by “Perla” was dispatched to San Antonio to gather migrants for the journey. She approached a group of migrants outside a shelter and offered them McDonald’s gift cards and a free flight to Massachusetts, Jordan said.
The woman known as Perla was so intent on filling the charter planes that she reportedly went to a nearby supermarket to recruit migrants, and interrupted others as they searched for work.
She “assured them that they would get on a path to finding jobs and laying down roots once they arrived,” Jordan said.
Many of the migrants understood that they were being flown to Massachusetts, but did not know that they would be dropped off on Martha’s Vineyard, Jordan said. They were deceived, she added, and thought they would be brought to Boston.
Just like in Washington and New York City, local officials were not given advanced warning or a chance to prepare for the migrants’ arrival. Unlike those large cities, however, the island does not have the humanitarian resources or job opportunities that migrants would need to thrive.
“While there’s plenty of work on Martha’s Vineyard during the high season, the season has just ended. So there’s not work, which is precisely what these people want on the Vineyard,” Jordan said.
Even still, locals rallied to their aid, rapidly providing food and shelter. Residents donated clothing, toys, and even cell phones, Jordan said. Some of the migrants were given the opportunity to call home and speak with family members for the first time in months.
Liberals reacted with outrage to DeSantis’ stunt, with President Biden saying that the governor was “playing politics with human beings, using them as props.”
Although DeSantis was following Abbott’s playbook, he took it to another level by deliberately sending migrants someplace without the resources they needed.
“Here, there’s not even the plausible deniability that he was trying to connect them to resources,” Jordan said.
DeSantis could have done this in a less chaotic fashion, Jordan said, but it is not in the political interests of people like him and Abbott to actually find solutions to the country’s immigration problem.
“It seems to be a priority to elevate the problem in the public square to benefit them and their political careers rather than to try to sit down and have a meaningful dialogue with the Democratic leadership on how to address this problem,” she said.
This week, Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights said that it was suing DeSantis and other Florida officials for the operation, alleging that it was fraudulent and discriminatory.
Although DeSantis has suggested that more flights could happen in the future, the migrant rights advocates are pursuing a ban on future migrant transports by Florida.
“It is ultimately incumbent on congress to fix the system, as actions like this do nothing to address the root cause of the issue. American politics, however, are mired in an era of extreme polarization and the rigid attachment to party lines may hinder any progress on this front,” Jordan said.
“The reality is, this is an intractable problem, and moving people around the country on buses and in planes from state to state isn’t going to solve the immigration problem.”
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