MARTHAS VINEYARD, Mass., Sept 15 (Reuters) – Some migrants who flew to the wealthy island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, said on Thursday they were misled about where they were supposed to go, and Democratic leaders have called for an investigation into Florida’s Republican operation. The governor had to send them there from Texas.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is up for re-election in November and is seen as a potential presidential contender in 2024, borrowed two planes that originated in San Antonio, Texas and stopped in Florida en route to Martha’s Vineyard.
Residents of the White House and vacation homes called it a “political stunt” because DeSantis has joined Republican governors in sending immigrants from Texas and Arizona north. The governors sought to highlight bipartisan differences on immigration policy and shift the burden of caring for immigrants to Democratic constituencies.
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Texas and Arizona have sent busloads of migrants to the Democratic-run cities of New York, Chicago and Washington for months.
Florida is now joining the campaign. Details of how the flights were arranged and paid for are unclear, and an explanation for why Florida is moving immigrants to Texas is unclear. The Florida Legislature has appropriated $12 million to transport immigrants from the state to other destinations.
Both flights on Wednesday were carrying about 50 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, a Martha’s Vineyard airport official said.
Hours after the planes landed, two buses sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is facing another Republican re-election bid, dropped off immigrants Thursday in a Washington neighborhood not far from Vice President Kamala Harris’ official home.
A Venezuelan immigrant who arrived on Martha’s Vineyard identified himself as Luis, 27, and said he and nine relatives had been promised a flight to Massachusetts, housing, support for 90 days, a work permit and English lessons. He said they were surprised when their plane landed on an island.
He said the promises came from a woman who gave her name as “Perla” who approached her family on the street outside a San Antonio shelter after U.S. border officials released them from Mexico with an immigration court date.
He said the woman who put them up at a hotel did not give a last name or any relationship, but asked them to sign a liability waiver.
“We’re scared,” he said, adding that he and others felt they had been lied to. “I hope they help us.”
Residents of Martha’s Vineyard rallied to help the distraught migrants and offered housing at St. Andrews Episcopal Church.
Martha’s Vineyard is known as a summer resort, mostly inhabited by wealthy liberal Americans, including former President Barack Obama, a Democrat who owns a multimillion-dollar vacation home.
Locals stopped to donate money and toys for the children, while lawyers rallied to offer free legal aid.
“It’s a stunt to make political points and not care who gets hurt,” said Mike Savoy, 58, a nurse at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
DeSantis defended the flights and told a news conference that Democratic US President Joe Biden “refused to lift a finger” to protect the border.
“We have worked in innovative ways to protect the state of Florida from the impact of Biden’s border policies,” DeSantis said.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Republican governors are using immigrants as “political pawns.”
Several Democrats, including DeSantis’ opponent in Florida, Charlie Crist, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom called for federal officials to investigate.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Rachel Rollins said at a news conference that her office would “look into that case” and speak with the Justice Department.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security developed a plan last year to coordinate with aid groups to send migrants to inner cities to ease pressure on border areas, a Biden administration official told Reuters on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
The White House is not receptive to the idea, according to a second U.S. official familiar with the matter.
Using evidence to move immigrants from Florida to Texas to Massachusetts raises legal concerns, including what information the immigrants were given before they boarded and whether they were coerced, said Pradeepan Kulasekaram, an immigration law expert at Santa Clara University School of Law.
US border agents have apprehended 1.8 million migrants at the US-Mexico border since last October. Many were quickly evacuated to Mexico or other countries under a public health rule implemented in 2020 to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
But hundreds of thousands of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and others cannot be deported because Mexico refuses to accept them or they can pursue asylum claims. read more
Many immigrants released from US custody in border states seek to join relatives or move elsewhere to find work. They often have to check in with US immigration officials or attend court hearings to obtain legal status.
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Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Martha’s Vineyard, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago, Andrea Shalal and Mike Scarcella in Washington, Nate Raymond in Boston and Christina Cook in San Francisco; Editing by Micah Rosenberg, Aurora Ellis, David Gregorio and Jerry Doyle
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