They are the desired outcome of the political approach of the die-hard Republican, who is seeking re-election and eyeing a possible presidential campaign aimed at appealing to a radical party base that loves candidates who stir up outrage.
In a previous political era, DeSantis’ hopes for higher office would have ended right here. Using desperate migrants fleeing repression and economic misery in Venezuela as pawns in a power game seems hardly compatible with American ideals of welcoming poor, hungry peoples who yearn to breathe freely.
The storming of the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard played out right on the hardline governor’s playbook — as did previous controversies over sex education in schools, transgender athletes, masks during the coronavirus pandemic, and his vow against a nearly nonexistent voter to proceed the fraud. In this, as in other cases, DeSantis took measures that some on the left and in the media saw as extreme and excessive. He then appeared defiantly on camera – not only did he stand by his decision, but he taunted those whose criticism he turns into even more fuel to increase his power and appeal to the GOP base. The image of an uncompromising conservative standing up to his critics is politically very effective – at least for now, since he is not in front of a broader national electorate.
But some mysterious aspects of the episode remain — not the least of which is the fact that DeSantis, who runs Florida, was arranging flights for migrants from Texas.
And there is growing evidence that the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard were misled to convince them to board the planes. CNN’s Maria Santana, for example, reported that three migrants sent to the island were told by a woman named “Perla” that they would get help with housing and jobs once they arrived at their destination.
The Biden administration is offering Republicans an opening to immigration
DeSantis’ posting of migrants can be inhumane. But it has its own hard logic.
He claims that cities like Washington, DC and states like Massachusetts encourage the influx of migrants because they don’t fully cooperate with immigration officials. His disdain for “holy” cities and states is shared by another Republican governor keen on stunt politics – Greg Abbott of Texas. The staunch Lone Star State conservative sent two new busloads of migrants to Washington, where they were dropped off at Vice President Kamala Harris’ official residence on Thursday to make a similar point. Volunteers said they were ready to meet the group at the city’s Union Station. It was not clear if the change in goal was motivated by a desire to make a political splash to match DeSantis’ impact.
There are a few reasons why the strategies are working. Democratic mayors of New York and Washington, Eric Adams and Muriel Bowser, have said their cities’ capacity to deal with an influx of migrants being sent by Republican governors is nearly overwhelmed. Such comments lend credence to warnings from border states that their resources are being overwhelmed by the flood of migrants. Still, promotional gimmicks like those of DeSantis and Abbott do little to actually solve a complex problem. Instead, they serve as a political launch pad — similar to the ones that catapulted Trump into the White House in 2016 with his harsh anti-immigration rhetoric.
But the Biden administration is also not innocent in solving the problem. She has long struggled to speak out on border security, which, for all the hysteria on the right, is a real issue on the mind of many voters.
For example, Harris said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that the border is “safe” — a comment that contradicts the views of many voters and the evidence from nearly 2 million border encounters reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency in the fiscal year ended September 30.
But the right’s demagogy of migrants only serves to further politicize the immigration problem, which Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both sought to solve with a coalition of bipartisan lawmakers, only to buck the conservatives’ unwillingness to compromise on Capitol Hill fail. In the volatile politics bequeathed by the Trump presidency, there is no chance that any serious immigration reform bill will come close to passing.
DeSantis is trying to piss off the left
DeSantis made it clear that he was motivated by a desire to annoy authorities in liberal states and even exact revenge on anti-Trump voters.
“All these people in DC and New York would bang their chests when (Donald) Trump was President and say they were so proud to be safe havens and say how bad it was to have a safe border” , DeSantis said Thursday.
“The moment even a small part of what these frontier towns have to do on a daily basis is brought to their doorstep, they suddenly become angry.”
While it’s possible to discern a coherent political strategy behind DeSantis and Abbott’s transportation policies, it is inevitable that both governors will exploit the tragedies of vulnerable people for political gain. In fact, the Venezuelans brought to Martha’s Vineyard are in fact victims of the kind of vengeful socialist dictatorship that DeSantis can usually be counted on to condemn.
These are desperate people and whatever the reason for their asylum claims, they will be treated as a faceless group and not as individuals. Christina Pushaw, director of rapid response for DeSantis’ reelection campaign, made it clear that these are just props.
“The residents of Martha’s Vineyard should love this. They vote for cities of refuge – they get their own city of refuge. And illegal aliens will increase the city’s diversity, which is strength. Right?” Pushaw tweeted.
However, if DeSantis was hoping to highlight the hypocrisy among the east coasts on an island full of vacation homes, he was disappointed.
The people of Martha’s Vineyard weren’t “crazy,” he said. Instead, they rushed to help. Residents provided food, clothing and shelter, though DeSantis received no prior notification of the migrants’ arrival on Wednesday.
“We went through Covid. We’ve been through hurricanes. We’ve been through this. … Each of them rose as Vineyard because we are resilient,” Edgartown Town Administrator James Hagerty said CNN’s Miguel Marquez.
“We take care of ourselves, we take care of the community, we help people.”
White House slams ‘cruel’ migrant transportation program
Democrats were quick to pick up on the callousness of DeSantis and Abbott’s tactics, even at the risk of feeding more water into the conservative media mill.
“What they are doing is an illegal stunt, a political stunt. And it’s just disrespectful to humanity,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “It’s just cruel.”
David Leopold, legal counsel for America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said: “The forcible relocation of a civilian population is a crime against humanity. And human trafficking is a major federal crime in the United States. Both are hallmarks of an anti-democratic totalitarian leader.”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns also sensed a dark political motivation in DeSantis.
“It basically means you can take a human life … and position it to become a political pawn in someone’s authoritarian game,” Burns said on CNN’s New Day.
While it is clear that these migrants are being used as pawns, the human trafficking allegations do not take into account the fact that some migrants welcome the opportunity to be transported from border states to the United States before appointments with immigration and asylum enforcement hearings that are months away or even years.
But the Republican response to the drama in Martha’s Vineyard underscored the electric impact it’s having on the GOP base.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is running for re-election and was once a proponent of sweeping immigration reform, strongly supported DeSantis.
“Immigration is a federal task that this government is not fulfilling. A handful of municipalities and states are bearing the brunt,” Rubio told reporters. “So if a migrant voluntarily — which is the case in most cases, not all — if a migrant voluntarily offers to go to another part of the country, I think it’s quite appropriate for a state to help them.”
As Rubio understands, any Republican who wants a future in the party must speak hard against immigration. Because of this, the recent shipments of migrants to liberal jurisdictions by Abbott and DeSantis likely won’t be the last such stunts.