The Political Calculations Behind DeSantis’s Migrant Flights North

Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, one-upped his Texas counterpart, Greg Abbott, this week by sending two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts — the cherry on top of a monthslong campaign to essentially troll liberal cities and states by transferring many asylum seekers to those communities.

The airlift, a spokeswoman for DeSantis said in a statement, “was part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.”

She added: “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.”

Of course, there is no such “open border.” Many of these migrants are utilizing U.S. asylum laws that afford them the opportunity for a court hearing to determine whether they qualify to stay in the United States, just as thousands did during the Trump administration and the Obama administration before that. And in most cases, they were apprehended by federal law enforcement agents or turned themselves in, enabling DeSantis to bundle them onto planes in the first place.

“Playing politics with people’s lives is what governors like George Wallace did during segregation,” Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said. “Ron DeSantis is trying to earn George Wallace’s legacy.” Moulton was referring to the “reverse freedom rides” of 1962, when segregationists used false promises of jobs and housing to trick Black Southerners into moving north. Moulton, who ran briefly for president in 2020, accused Republicans more generally of using immigration as a “political football.”

The deeper issue is this: For decades, Congress has failed to overhaul the country’s immigration laws, which both parties acknowledge are badly out of step with what is happening along the U.S.-Mexico border. They just differ wildly on the proposed remedies.

But the political calculations for DeSantis and Abbott are pretty clear. Immigration is a powerful motivating issue for Republican-base voters, nationally and especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

My colleague Astead Herndon discusses this topic in the latest episode of his podcast, The Run-Up. It’s a deep dive on the 10th anniversary of the so-called Republican autopsy of the 2012 election, in which G.O.P. insiders argued for a complete rethinking of their party’s strategy on immigration and Latino voters.

As DeSantis surely knows — and by all accounts he’s a canny politician who has his ear attuned to the id of the G.O.P. grass roots — Donald Trump did basically the opposite of what that autopsy recommended. He made frequent and aggressive political use of Latino migrants during his run for the presidency in 2016 and long thereafter, casting many of them as “criminals” and “rapists” during his presidential announcement at Trump Tower.

And DeSantis, who seems likely to waltz to re-election in the fall, is busy amassing a formidable war chest for purposes that remain both opaque and obvious. For months, he has been quietly courting Trump donors under the guise of bringing them into his campaign for governor while being careful never to stick his head too far above the parapet — lest Trump try to knock it off his proverbial shoulders.

Rick Tyler, a former aide to Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, said the flights to Martha’s Vineyard by DeSantis were “perhaps” smart politics in the context of a Republican primary, but he added, “I find it cynical to be using real human beings as political stunt pawns for positioning in a presidential chess game.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, sharply rebuked the Texas and Florida governors for deliberately trying to “create chaos and confusion” in a way that is “disrespectful to humanity.” She said that Fox News was given advance notice while the White House was not.

“It is a political stunt,” she said. “That’s what we’re seeing from governors, Republican governors, in particular. It is a cruel, inhumane way of treating people who are fleeing communism, people who are — and we’re not just talking about people, we’re talking about children, we’re talking about families.”

A report in The Vineyard Gazette, a local newspaper, recounts how the migrants arrived on the island and were greeted by “a coalition of emergency management officials, faith groups, nonprofit agencies and county and town officials” that organized food and shelter for the new arrivals.

Other Democratic-led enclaves, such as Washington, D.C., and New York City, have petitioned the federal government for help in processing and housing the thousands of migrants that DeSantis and Abbott have theatrically thrust upon them. Last week, Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, declared a state of emergency over the nearly 10,000 migrants who had been bused there from Texas. Eric Adams, her counterpart in New York, said on Wednesday that the city’s shelter system was “nearing its breaking point.”

On Thursday morning, two buses dropped off a group of 101 migrants outside the home of Vice President Kamala Harris — a poisoned political chalice sent by Abbott, who tweeted, “We’re sending migrants to her backyard to call on the Biden Administration to do its job & secure the border.”


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In an indicator of just how potent Republicans believe this issue to be among their voters, even Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a relative moderate who stood up to Trump over his false stolen election claims in 2020, is now getting in on the game. Ducey, who declined heavy pressure from Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, to run for Senate, is thought to harbor presidential aspirations of his own.

The Massachusetts press cast the move by DeSantis as a challenge to Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican whose future plans remain in flux. Baker, a northeastern moderate in the mold of past G.O.P. governors of the Bay State, such as Mitt Romney and Bill Weld, would have little hope in a presidential primary against DeSantis or, for that matter, Trump.

The trolling is a novel political tactic. But the general phenomenon of distributing migrants around the country isn’t entirely new, as my colleague Zolan Kanno-Youngs has written. When the Obama administration faced a tide of unaccompanied minors that overwhelmed facilities along the border in places like McAllen, Texas, the Department of Health and Human Services placed thousands of the children in cities across the country.

And after the 2011 protest movement in Syria devolved into a vicious civil war, many Republican governors began objecting to having refugees placed in their states.

Trump also seized on that issue, calling for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” — then sought to enact that policy in one of his first moves as president.

Gil Kerlikowske, a former Customs and Border Protection commissioner in the Obama administration, woke up on Thursday morning to find that border politics had followed him to his home on Martha’s Vineyard.

Kerlikowske learned that migrants had been dropped off on the island when he went to the barbershop on Thursday morning and overheard people questioning why the United States was unable to secure the southwest border.

He reminded the fellow customers that thousands of migrants crossed over the border during the George W. Bush administration as well.

“It just kind of shows the ignorance of DeSantis,” Kerlikowske said, advising the governor to pressure members of Florida’s congressional delegation to pass new immigration laws instead. “If he wanted to highlight where the problem is, he should have sent them to Marco Rubio and Rick Scott’s homes.”

President Biden has faced pushback from those on his left for, in the view of some advocacy groups, continuing Trump’s immigration policies. On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Biden after a Reuters report revealed that the administration had been urging Mexico to accept more migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela under a policy put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for the DeSantis campaign, said, “The governor has spoken publicly about transporting illegal migrants to sanctuary jurisdictions for months.” She noted that DeSantis had requested $12 million from the Florida Legislature in this year’s state budget for the transfers.

“But we in the campaign didn’t know the destination would be Martha’s Vineyard or that it would happen yesterday,” Pushaw said. “We found out from media reports.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Peter Baker contributed reporting.


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