On Wednesday, two planes chartered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis transported about 50 asylum-seeking individuals from San Antonio, near where they had crossed the Mexican border, to Martha’s Vineyard, the high-end vacation destination off the coast of Massachusetts.
The members of the group reportedly originated from Colombia and Venezuela, and the expectation inherent in the stunt was that the Vineyard’s left-leaning summer residents would treat them as unwelcome burdens in a way that DeSantis (and Tucker Carlson, who had suggested this very idea on his Fox News show) believed would demonstrate the hypocrisy of elite liberalism.
Putting aside the issue of whether the migrants were actually received poorly (numerous donations of food and clothing were reported), the contradictory symbolism of conservative politicians characterizing individuals fleeing Venezuela as resource-sponging nuisances when they usually tout the U.S. as a sanctuary for victims of Latin American leftism, and the subject of which political party benefits more from the “optics” of the story, one question that remains is whether DeSantis’ administration behaved illegally when it convinced the migrants in question to leave the shelter where they were staying in Texas. A great deal of MAGA attention is paid to the imaginary human trafficking featured in QAnon conspiracy theories; it’d be a little ironic if DeSantis did the real thing in the process of trying to impress primary voters.
On that point, a pamphlet published by progressive journalist Judd Legum on his site, Popular.Info, may be evidence of … something.
According the Lawyers for Civil Rights organization, which says it is providing legal support to the migrants, the brochure—pictured at the top of this post—was distributed to them “at some point during their expulsion and relocation.” Titled “Massachusetts Refugee Benefits,” it seems to have been designed by someone with, at best, an elementary understanding of word processing and publishing software. The Bulwark’s Sonny Bunch noticed that it features a state flag-type image that is not actually Massachusetts’ state flag but is the first result on the site Imgur for the search term “Massachusetts state flag”:
The text of the pamphlet is copied from the state of Massachusetts’ Office for Refugees and Immigrants website and promises “cash assistance,” “assistance with housing,” and other benefits that do exist, but are only available to refugees who have already been identified as such by the United Nations and who have been formally accepted into the U.S. for resettlement. The individuals on the DeSantis flights are seeking asylum, which is a similar status, but they haven’t been granted it yet; the pamphlet thus advertised benefits that none of its recipients were eligible to receive. (Other reports say some migrants attested to having been told they were traveling to Boston and/or promised jobs at their destination.)
Did individuals acting on DeSantis’ behalf produce the flyer with the intent of tricking migrants at a shelter into getting on the stunt flight? Did they not even understand the distinction between refugee and asylum-applicant status themselves?
Unraveling that would require finding out who exactly did the recruiting, about which little is currently known besides several migrants having said that a woman named “Perla” was involved. (She is said to be “tall.” Intriguing!) The Miami Herald notes, in its story about the matter, that the funding DeSantis’ administration used to charter the planes is allotted in Florida’s budget “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state,” as in, not other states. DeSantis has claimed vaguely that he hasn’t violated this provision because his representatives on the ground in Texas have figured out how to identify immigrants “who are trying to come to Florida” before they do it. Said DeSantis: “What we’re trying to do is profile—who do you think is going to try to get to Florida?” It’s Minority Report, but stupid!
The Herald reports, though, that the migrants its reporters have spoken to said their goal was to get to New York. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall is following the story and, for his part, suspects DeSantis may have outsourced the work to a right-wing activist organization. Whatever its role in the details of the affair, a spokeswoman for the Florida governor’s office did comment on the refugee pamphlet to argue that it isn’t fraudulent because its text was taken from a real government website.
In any case, the Democratic sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, (home to San Antonio) says he has opened an investigation into whether the migrants were persuaded to board the planes “under false pretenses.” And Judd Legum observes that public flight-tracking information indicates one of the planes used for the Vineyard trip is scheduled to fly on Tuesday from San Antonio to Delaware, where Joe Biden has two homes. God willing, Perla will take some long strides off that plane and we can get this all sorted out!