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Column: The saga of DeSantis’ migrant flights gets uglier

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
A lawsuit alleges Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agents lied to get migrants to board flights out of Texas.
(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)

Earlier this week, we speculated that the saga of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant flights was bound to look uglier with time.

And so it goes.

In a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Massachusetts, the immigrant aid group Alianza Americas put meat on the bare bones of what’s been known about the DeSantis-sponsored flights of nearly 50 migrants to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

‘The problem is we’re not seeing mass movements of them into Florida. It’s just coming in onesie-twosies.’

— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, lamenting the absence of an immigration problem in his state

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What had previously been reported was that the migrants had been told before boarding two planes in Texas that they were being taken to Boston or Washington, D.C., where they would be given jobs and receive a host of immigrant services.

Instead, they were dropped off on the island, which is reachable only by air or sea, where no one capable of providing such services had been warned of their arrival.

Naming DeSantis, Florida Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue and the state of Florida as defendants, the lawsuit states that they “manipulated” the migrants, “stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process, and equal protection under law.”

DeSantis responded to the lawsuit Tuesday by making public a consent form purportedly signed by one of the passengers. If it’s genuine, the disclosure must rank as a spectacular self-own on DeSantis’ part. It’s in English and Spanish, but the Spanish text — the part bearing the passenger’s signature — is an incomplete translation from the English.

consent
Consent form released by the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, purportedly signed by a migrant passenger on Florida’s flight to Martha’s Vineyard. The Spanish translation lacks the English paragraph holding the perpetrators harmless.
(State of Florida)

Missing is a Spanish translation of an entire paragraph attesting that the passenger agrees to “hold the benefactor or its designated representatives harmless of all liability ... relating to any injuries and damages that may occur during the agreed transport.” The document states only that the flight would originate in Texas and land in Massachusetts, with no further specifics.

The three named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who are identified by pseudonyms, all crossed the U.S. border to seek asylum from crime, civil unrest, terrorism and other such conditions in their home country, Venezuela.

They surrendered to U.S. immigration officials, who allowed them to remain in the U.S. while their asylum applications were being adjudicated, a process that can take more than a year. In the interim, they’re legal residents in the U.S.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were approached outside a migrant resource center in San Antonio by two individuals identified only as “Perla” and “Emanuel,” who haven’t been further identified or found. The lawsuit says they gave the migrants $10 McDonalds gift certificates and told them that if they were willing to be flown out of Texas, “they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival.”

GOP governors have been sponsoring bus and plane transfers of migrants from their states to northern jurisdictions including New York; Washington, D.C.; and (notoriously) the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. It’s a behavior with a discredited history.

Perla and Emanuel gave them their supposed cellphone numbers and told them to call if any problems arose. The lawsuit says they kept the migrants in hotel rooms for as long as five days, separated from any legitimate migrant assistance workers, while they rounded up enough passengers to fill the planes.

Only during the flight were the passengers told they would be landing on Martha’s Vineyard. They were handed a packet of information about refugee resettlement programs in Massachusetts, which the passengers, in fact ,didn’t qualify for.

Perla and Emanuel didn’t travel on the flights, according to the lawsuit. The cellphone numbers weren’t answered, the lawsuit says.

The passengers were dropped off on Martha’s Vineyard “in the evening, with no food, water or shelter,” the lawsuit asserts. “No one on Martha’s Vineyard — or ... anywhere in Massachusetts — knew they were coming.”

DeSantis and his co-defendants haven’t filed an official response to the lawsuit. But in public statements, including an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program Tuesday, he has spouted a heap of balderdash about the migrant flights.

Martha’s Vineyard, he told Hannity, “said they wanted this. They said they were a sanctuary jurisdiction.”

That’s a lie. Massachusetts has never enacted legislation identifying itself as a sanctuary state, which is normally taken to involve a formal designation.

The Massachusetts high court has said that state law enforcement officers can’t arrest anyone merely on suspicion of being in the U.S. illegally. But efforts to pass a state law establishing Massachusetts as a “sanctuary state” have consistently failed.

Florida’s new surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, has questioned the safety of COVID vaccines, despite overwhelming evidence that they are safe and effective.

Several communities in the state, including Boston, have designated themselves as sanctuary jurisdictions, but Martha’s Vineyard isn’t among them.

Had the flights landed in Boston, especially with advance notice, officials and advocates would have been on hand to receive them. As DeSantis and his agents undoubtedly knew, that wasn’t the case on the island.

DeSantis has acknowledged, in effect, that Florida doesn’t have a problem of mass migration of undocumented immigrants. “The problem is we’re not seeing mass movements of them into Florida,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s just coming in onesie-twosies.”

He said “we’ve had people” on the border who have determined that between one-third to 40% of those crossing are interested in coming to Florida. “If you can do it at the source and divert to sanctuary jurisdictions, the chance they end up in Florida is much less.”

That brings us to the latest iteration of DeSantis’ infantile stunt. On Tuesday, a plane chartered by the same company DeSantis used for the Martha’s Vineyard flight appeared set to take off from San Antonio, with a flight plan showing it was headed for Delaware, President Biden’s home state.

Delaware officials and immigrant advocates scrambled to receive it. Instead, the plane landed in Teterboro, N.J., with no one aboard but the flight crew.

Coverage of the episode raises doubts about whether our political news media will be prepared to see past the inanities of political campaigning in the coming elections and focus on what’s important.

At MSNBC, the episode was covered as a big joke in which the White House, Delaware officials, “the news media and political onlookers” were “punked.”

MSNBC framed this as a “ ‘Waiting for Godot'-like spectacle” highlighting “the intractable politics around immigration, as well as DeSantis’ knack for getting headlines.” Is that really what this is about?

Here are a couple of questions that didn’t make it into MSNBC’s entertainment coverage: Why even pose at sending migrants to Delaware, since it’s not a sanctuary state? Also, how much time, effort and money were wasted by officials and immigration service providers forced to wait in vain for a flight from Texas, because their concerns were for the passengers, not for political point-scoring?

Disney’s money has controlled Florida politics for more than 50 years. Now the politicians are showing their ingratitude.

And did DeSantis spend Florida budget resources aimed at relocating immigrants on a flight with no immigrants aboard, and no purpose other than “punking” well-wishers at the destination? DeSantis’ precise role in the flight isn’t clear, though DeSantis refused to comment on the flight and an anonymous DeSantis aide quoted by MSNBC said the governor “purposely left people in the dark.”

USAToday’s framing was almost as myopic. The Gannett newspaper described the Delaware episode as part of “an ongoing spat between Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that has captured headlines and put a spotlight on Biden’s border policies.”

One would think that Biden and DeSantis have been mano-a-mano over immigration, but that’s just not true. DeSantis, like his fellow GOP governors, has no policy proposals to offer on immigration and, indeed, has admitted that Florida doesn’t have an immigration problem.

(My colleagues Andrea Castillo and Erin B. Logan also covered the episode, quoting immigration officials at length about their efforts, and without any of MSNBC’s jocularity or USAToday’s nearsightedness.)

Contrary to MSNBC’s framing, none of this is really about “the intractable politics around immigration.” It’s just performative stupidity masquerading as a serious policy debate, with vulnerable people being victimized. If the news media can’t tell the difference, we’re in trouble.

As the class-action lawsuit states, this is about abusing “destitute, stranded and immensely vulnerable” individuals and families who have sought succor in the United States and have followed all the rules to obtain it. Instead, they’re waylaid by agents of reckless and malignant politicians who defraud them and place them in situations where their legal and social problems are only magnified.

DeSantis is only one of the Republican governors engaging in this practice, albeit the one who appears to be best at grabbing the attention of a heedless press. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey have been at this for longer; they just lack DeSantis’ peculiar verve. People who defraud innocents of their money often face prison time when they’re caught.

In these cases, the victims are being deprived of much more, and by perpetrators who brag about their activities rather than hide them.


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