DeSantis portrays himself as champion of immigrants’ welfare after backlash

<span>Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP</span>
Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

To hear Ron DeSantis tell it, his splurge of up to $12m of Florida taxpayers’ money to fly migrants between two states he’s not governor of is all Joe Biden’s fault.

The US president’s border policies, the Republican Florida governor insists, left him no alternative but to step in to the immigration fight, which he did by dumping two planeloads of mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, last week with no advance notice.

“Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them,” DeSantis’s office claimed in a statement painting him as a champion of the immigrants’ welfare who is “sharing the burden” of border states.

“They have been provided accommodations, sustenance, clothing and more options to succeed,” the statement added, without noting such aid was provided entirely by authorities on the ground, who moved swiftly to deal with the sudden and unexpected influx.

Yet many have called the action “a vile political stunt” by a man considered a likely frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. It also appears that it has sinister racist roots that long predate Biden’s ascent to the Oval Office and are now designed to inflame white nationalism and xenophobia within the modern Republican party.

DeSantis’s enterprise, and parallel efforts by the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, in sending buses of migrants to the Democratic-run cities of Washington DC, New York and Chicago, mirror a rightwing strategy of the civil rights era of the 1960s when racial minorities were moved from one state to another to harvest political capital.

The JFK Library was quick to notice in a tweet posted last week as the DeSantis flights came to light, coincidentally, or not, the first day of Hispanic heritage month.

“To embarrass Northern liberals and humiliate Black people, southern White Citizens Councils started their so-called ‘Reverse Freedom Rides,’ giving Black people one-way tickets to northern cities with false promises of jobs, housing, and better lives,” the tweet said.

DeSantis has been accused – in a federal class action lawsuit filed this week by some of the migrants – of similarly conning those he calls “volunteers”, offering them a $10 meal voucher at a San Antonio McDonald’s, and dangling fake assurances of employment and accommodation in Massachusetts that were not his to give.

“For DeSantis to now claim that he’s a champion of these asylum seekers and migrants who were lured and tricked on to planes, and brought to Martha’s Vineyard without their meaningful consent, that’s kind of the height of irony, isn’t it?” said Elora Mukherjee, professor of social justice and human rights at Columbia Law School.

“Americans have generally been very welcoming to immigrants, especially those who are fleeing persecution, such as these Venezuelan asylum seekers and migrants.

“But what we’re seeing is DeSantis playing toward the xenophobic and nationalistic white supremacist impulses that are at the base of the modern Republican party. It’s a well-timed act of political theater to propel him forward and gain as much national media attention as possible as part of his bid to become our next president.”

DeSantis’s office did not respond to questions from the Guardian, including his use of a $12m fund approved by the Florida legislature solely for the removal of migrants already “in state”, which those flown to Martha’s Vineyard were not. Democratic state senator Jason Pizzo filed a lawsuit on Thursday accusing DeSantis of breaking state law and seeking to end the flights.

The governor also won’t say how “DeSantis Air,” as close aides mockingly refer to the operation, chose Martha’s Vineyard. But clues are not hard to find.

“It’s got to be Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a natural,” Tucker Carlson, conservative host on DeSantis’s favorite network Fox News, said on air in July as he assessed areas of “zero diversity” to suggest to Republican governors.

“They’re begging for more diversity. Why not send migrants there, in huge numbers? Let’s start with 300,000 and move up from there.”

Debate has focused on the legality of the actions of DeSantis and Abbott in moving migrants across state lines under allegedly false pretenses. A sheriff in Texas opened a criminal investigation this week, and the White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called it “an illegal political stunt.”

But other than muffled grumblings from some lower profile politicians, Republicans have been largely silent. That has drawn the attention of Democrats in both Texas and Florida, and specifically Miami, where immigrants account for 55% of the population.

Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-born state senator running for a US House seat representing the city in November’s midterms, pointed to a gathering DeSantis hosted in May at the Miami Freedom Tower when, flanked by numerous local, state and nationally elected Republicans, he announced he was dedicating 7 November as “victims of communism” day, honoring Venezuelans among those who had fled communist regimes.

“It’s just so hypocritical of all of these Republicans who are now conveniently quiet again when they were all there standing next to the governor when they lauded November 7,” she said.

“You can’t just claim that you care about Cubans and Venezuelans and Nicaraguans if you’re not going to be there for them when they actually come here. These people are the success that we all speak of, the American Dream that we all speak of, but here they are using them as pawns.”

Taddeo said Spanish-language radio stations in south Florida, which has a sizeable Venezuelan diaspora, had been abuzz since news of the DeSantis migrant flights emerged.

“I can tell you from a Miami perspective, this right here is toxic,” she said.

“You can measure it by the number of calls into these radio stations, specifically expressing their outrage. I have heard from so many Republicans and independents, who tend to be more conservative, and independents who sometimes vote this way.

“Luring people with a McDonald’s meal and getting them to agree to get on this plane under false pretenses is human trafficking. It’s an outrage,” she said.

Whether the various lawsuits have legs remains to be seen, with some experts suggesting a political remedy was preferable.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a collective solution to the distribution of refugees in our country,” Daniel Morales, professor of immigration law at the University of Houston law school said.

“My understanding is El Paso has quietly been moving refugees in coordination with places that have the capacity to receive them. It’s fine for folks to share in the burden from other places – the issue is how that sharing occurs.

“If folks are really serious about solving capacity issues, or spending funds in a way that could be productive, they would coordinate with receiving states and cities, but that’s not the objective here.

“You have human beings used for clearly political purposes, to galvanize the media around this issue. DeSantis and Abbott have done this. I think it’s going to require some sort of public reckoning in the polls. There’s more likely a political remedy than a legal remedy.”

Charlie Crist, the former Florida governor and Democratic candidate challenging DeSantis in November’s midterms, said his opponent was engaged in “cruelty” over immigration that deflected attention from other issues unpopular with voters, including Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban.

“It’s a war on Hispanics by his administration. It’s a war on women. It’s a disaster. It’s inhumane. This is not the act of a sincere, dedicated, compassionate public servant. This is the act of a raw political animal,” he said.