Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been spending state funds sending migrants to Democratic cities for months to score political points against the Biden administration’s border policies. But after dozens of migrants were flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week as part of Florida’s copycat program, controversy over the program reached a boiling point.
Now the policy is being challenged in federal court and is the subject of a criminal investigation. Those legal problems could eventually halt GOP efforts to continue trucking migrants into Democratic strongholds, though Republicans have already managed to draw national attention to the border and play it up as an intermediary issue.
On Tuesday, three of the 48 Venezuelan migrants sent from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard sued the Florida governor. Ron DeSantis and other Florida officials on behalf of their group. They accuse DeSantis of “conducting a deliberate, fraudulent, and illegal scheme… solely for the purpose of furthering their own personal, financial, and political interests.”
Meanwhile, Texas authorities are investigating whether the migrants were victims of a crime. “Someone came from out of state, preyed on these people, lured them with promises of a better life,” Sheriff Javier Salazar said in one press conference Monday.
DeSantis does not indicate that he will quit. There were reports on Tuesday that he plans to charter more flights to send migrants to Delaware near President Joe Biden’s vacation home. DeSantis refused to confirm his plans; White House and Delaware officials prepared for the migrants’ possible arrival, although they never came.
The scheme is Abbott’s idea and one that the governor of Arizona came up with. Doug Ducey has replicated himself, but DeSantis has been the one making headlines for it lately. That’s because of its design. He is currently in a race for re-election with his Democratic opponent, the former governor of Florida. Charlie Crist, and has used the stunt to try to revitalize border security as a major topic at halftime. On Monday he published a new campaign ad with a mother whose son died in a car accident with an unauthorized immigrant, in a critique of Biden’s border policy.
Voters do not rank immigration among their top priorities at the national level; it ranks behind inflation, jobs, the Florida economy and abortion. But while immigration isn’t a top issue for Floridans in general, it’s the #3 issue for the state’s Republicans, according to a recent AARP/FabrizioWard/Impact Research poll. That suggests DeSantis, who is also reportedly preparing for a presidential bid in 2024, is trying to cement his combative credentials on immigration and former President Donald Trump’s success in activating the GOP base and the Repeating donors by making tough immigration and border security a defining theme of his campaign.
In return, however, he has uprooted people who now say they were tricked into flying to a remote part of Massachusetts. And that can lead to legal problems.
The possible legal consequences
The migrants’ lawsuit alleges that they were essentially tricked into traveling to Martha’s Vineyard aboard two flights chartered by Florida officials. The flights cost more than $600,000 in taxpayer dollars.
They argue that DeSantis and other Florida officials planned to attack migrants on the streets outside a migrant shelter in San Antonio, Texas, offering McDonald’s gift certificates and free hotel stays, and promising them employment, housing, education opportunities and other assistance if they responded Board a plane went to other states. Salazar said Monday a Venezuelan migrant was paid a “bird dog fee” to recruit her.
They claim that they were told they were going to Boston or Washington, DC, but were instead taken to Martha’s Vineyard, where they found neither such resources nor food or water until locals rushed to the aid of the unexpected arrivals. They were later moved to a military base in Cape Cod.
The migrants accuse DeSantis and the other officers of improperly detaining them, violating their Fourth Amendment rights, and enticing them to fraudulently board a plane across state lines, violating their right to individual liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment .change was violated. They are asking a judge to stop DeSantis and the other officials from “tricking immigrants into traveling across state lines through fraud and misrepresentation” and are also seeking damages, though it’s not clear who will have to pay those damages.
Both Abbott and DeSantis have claimed that the migrants were never misled. Instead, DeSantis tried to pin the blame on the Biden administration for treating migrants “terribly,” he said in a Tuesday news conference.
“I think it opens people’s eyes to the solution, which is a safe border,” he told reporters. “The biggest stunt was Biden stepping in as president and reversing Trump’s policies.” (Notably, Biden retained one of the defining boundary policies of the Trump era: the Title 42 policy.)
The migrants’ lawsuit alleges no criminal misconduct. Texas investigators have not named any suspects in connection with their investigation, but that investigation could lead to criminal charges. State Legislatures in Massachusetts, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Latino rights groups have also called for one federal investigation into the scheme to investigate it as possible human trafficking or kidnapping. So far, no such probe has been announced.
Should the migrants become victims of a crime, it could make it easier for them to remain in the United States. Salazar said that all migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard have been released from federal custody. Before the flight, all were legally in the US while pursuing their asylum claims. Because of this, they could instead be eligible to apply for a “U visa,” a humanitarian visa available to crime victims. This visa would allow them to stay in the United States for four years on a work permit, apply for permanent residency after three years, and allow their family members to apply for visas.
How the Biden administration is reacting
The Biden administration has largely dodged questions about how it intends to respond to DeSantis’ scheme, portraying it as an issue concocted by Republicans for political gain. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday that DeSantis’ “sole goal, as he’s made it really clear, is to sow chaos and use immigrants fleeing Communism as political pawns “.
“It’s about doing political theater for him. It’s not about coming to a solution,” she added.
But this immediate controversy belies a deeper problem, namely red states openly defying federal immigration policies and taking matters into their own hands. This not only has political consequences, but also operational ones. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in August that “unilateral” efforts by Abbott and others to crack down on border crossings “could wreak havoc” because they could undermine law enforcement’s goals and create a situation where the US has multiple, conflicting immigration policies.
In general, Democrats don’t like to talk about immigration, which has long been considered the “third rail of American politics,” and certainly not in the immediate weeks leading up to a midterm election, in which they are cautiously optimistic about limiting Republican gains. But burying your head in the sand on a contentious issue may not be the best defense given the current reality on the border.
The number of cases in which officers encountered migrants at the US-Mexico border this fiscal year surpassed 2 million in August, an all-time high. These numbers come on record levels of migration from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – marking a departure from the predominantly Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran migration flows that typified before the pandemic.
Those numbers are inflated because many migrants have been caught trying to cross the border multiple times due to a Trump-era pandemic policy known as Title 42, which has eliminated all possible adverse legal consequences.
This policy allows the federal government to bar non-citizens from entering the United States “in the interest of public health.” Trump argued it helped stem the spread of Covid-19. Biden has chosen to keep Title 42 for the time being, expelling more than a million migrants this fiscal year, despite recently declaring the pandemic over and many medical professionals saying the policy is doing nothing to protect public health.
Part of the Biden administration’s reliance on Trump-era policies stems from allowing the federal government to quickly and easily deport migrants; it is a way of avoiding the daunting operational and humanitarian challenge that immigration poses.
Biden claims he came up with a solution; Jean-Pierre noted Tuesday that Biden has introduced sweeping immigration reform legislation, but the reality is Democrats don’t have the numbers they need to pass it in the Senate. That means any action Biden wants to take would have to come through the executive branch — and in a way that doesn’t cause political backlash for Democrats and isn’t constrained by the courts, which have repeatedly stood in the way of his efforts to legislate the policies of the reversing the Trump era and reprioritizing immigration enforcement.
It’s a tall order, and one that the administration has apparently been unable to figure out. And that — plus voter concerns about other issues — has left a vacuum in which GOP governors have used migrants to whip up their base.