Florida, Texas escalate flights, buses to move migrants

EDGARTOWN, Mass. (AP) — Republican governors are escalating their practice of sending migrants without advance warning to strongholds for Democrats, including a wealthy summer enclave in Massachusetts and the home of Vice President Kamala Harris, taunting leaders of immigrant-friendly “sanctuary” cities and highlighting their opposition to Biden administration policies.

The governors of Texas and Arizona have sent thousands of migrants on buses to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., in recent months, but the latest surprise moves – which included two flights to Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday paid for by Florida – were derided by critics as inhumane political theater.

Upon their arrival in Martha’s Vineyard, where former President Barack Obama has a home, the migrants who were predominantly from Venezuela were provided with meals, shelter, healthcare and information about where to find work.

“We are a community that comes together to support immigrants,” said State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who represents the vacation island south of Boston whose year-round residents include many blue-collar workers.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, based in Boston, said it was providing free legal services — and investigating whether Florida’s governor may have violated human trafficking laws if it turns out any migrants were sent against their will or duped into taking the flights.

Domingo Garcia, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that some of the migrants sent on buses from Texas to Washington, D.C. on Thursday were “tricked” — an allegation that AP has not confirmed and that officials in Texas and Arizona have denied.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes to Martha’s Vineyard in what his office said was part of an effort to “transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.” The Florida Legislature has earmarked $12 million to transport “unauthorized aliens” out of state.

While DeSantis’ office didn’t elaborate on their legal status, many who cross the border illegally are temporarily shielded from deportation after being freed by U.S. authorities to pursue asylum in immigration court — as allowed under U.S law and international treaty — or released on humanitarian parole.

DeSantis’ office didn’t answer questions about where migrants boarded planes and how they were coaxed into making the trip.

Massachusetts state Sen. Julian Cyr told The Vineyard Gazette that one plane originated in San Antonio, raising questions about whether migrants ever set foot in Florida. Flight tracking data shows a flight originated in San Antonio, stopped in Crestview, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, before landing in Martha’s Vineyard.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the arrival of two buses of migrants from Texas early Thursday outside Harris’ residence at the United States Naval Observatory. They carried more than 100 migrants from the Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela.

“The Biden-Harris administration continues ignoring and denying the historic crisis at our southern border, which has endangered and overwhelmed Texas communities for almost two years,” said Abbott, who has poured billions of taxpayer dollars into making border security a signature issue.

Abbott has bused 7,900 migrants to Washington since April, later sending 2,200 to New York and 300 to Chicago. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has bused more than 1,800 migrants to Washington since May. Passengers must sign waivers that the free trips are voluntary.

DeSantis appears to be taking the strategy to a new level by using planes and choosing Martha’s Vineyard, whose harbor towns that are home to about 15,000 people are far less prepared than New York or Washington for large influxes of migrants.

Texas and Florida have infuriated officials in destination cities by failing to provide passenger rosters, estimated times of arrival and other information that would make it easier to prepare. In contrast, Arizona has coordinated with officials in other cities.

President Joe Biden is facing the same challenges that dogged his predecessor, former President Donald Trump: a dysfunctional asylum system in the United States, and economic and social conditions that are prompting people from dozens of countries to flee.

U.S. authorities stopped migrants crossing from Mexico about 2 million times from October through July, up nearly 50% from the same period a year earlier. A rule in effect since March 2020 that suspends rights to seek asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 applies to all nationalities in theory but has been largely limited to migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador because those are the only ones accepted by Mexico.

In July, less than 4 of every 10 stops at the Mexican border were subject to expulsion under the pandemic rule, known as Title 42. Many from Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua and elsewhere were released in the United States to pursue their immigration cases. U.S. authorities have struggled to expel them to their countries because of costs, strained diplomatic relations or other considerations.

Some Republicans celebrated the latest delivery of migrants from border states to sanctuary cities.

“Welcome to being a state on the Southern border, Massachusetts,” tweeted DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern.

Stephen Miller, a chief architect of Trump’s immigration policies, said bringing “a few million” migrants to Martha’s Vineyard should transform the island of about 15,000 people into “a modern Eden.”

Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist said DeSantis is treating the migrants inhumanely. “It’s amazing to me what he’s willing to do for sheer political gain,” Crist said.

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Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, Anita Snow in Phoenix and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed.

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