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Ron DeSantis Just Tried A Move Out Of A Racist 1960s Playbook–And It Totally Backfired

Ron DeSantis Just Tried A Move Out Of A Racist 1960s Playbook–And It Totally Backfired
Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis has wanted to get in the migrant shell game for months now.

His rival for chief state executive troll, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, has made headlines lately by busing migrants from his state to so-called “sanctuary cities” such as New York and D.C. in order to score political points. Just yesterday, Abbott ordered two buses of migrants to be dropped off in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’s home in the capital. Not to be outdone by his southern compatriot, Gov. DeSantis upped the stakes even further yesterday with his own political stunt: chartering flights and depositing nearly 50 refugees, mostly from Venezuela, in the idyllic island of Martha’s Vineyard, known widely as a retreat for wealthy liberals.

The refugees had been duped by a woman named “Perla” who had told them, falsely, that they would be flown to Boston so they could receive expedited work papers in a “sanctuary” called “Massachusetts.” Perla won their favor in part by handing out free fast-food restaurant gift cards. She spent days using this ruse to collect up enough migrants for two planes full of passengers. Yesterday, they arrived at their destination without any advance notice to local authorities or residents.

It turns out, the refugees weren’t even in Florida at the time they were transported. Rather, they were living in San Antonio, Texas in temporary shelters. The charter flights stopped briefly in Florida and then again in the Carolinas before heading north to Martha’s Vineyard. As one eagle-eyed reporter noted, the ruse doesn’t even adhere to the $12 million budget item that authorized it: “a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state”—because the migrants were based in Texas. In short, Florida spent state taxpayer money to move migrants who weren’t even in Florida.

Opponents of DeSantis were incensed. Nikki Fried, who serves as the statewide elected Commissioner of Agriculture for Florida and recently campaigned unsuccessfully to challenge DeSantis in the general election, tweeted that she had already called the White House directly and demanded that the Justice Department investigate DeSantis for human trafficking, labeling it a “vile stunt.” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who has used his own campaign money to run anti-DeSantis ads in that state, said that what DeSantis and Abbott are doing “isn’t clever, it’s cruel” and made a formal request to the DOJ to investigate the use of people, including children, as political pawns. He also asked the Department to investigate whether any federal laws, including kidnapping, had been violated.

Political observers and historians were quick to point out the striking parallels between what DeSantis had done and the operations of southern “White Citizens Councils” during the Civil Rights Era, which conducted what they called at the time “Reverse Freedom Rides.” As the JFK Library noted yesterday in a tweet unsubtly directed at DeSantis, these groups gave Black people “one-way tickets to northern cities with false promises of jobs, housing and better lives.” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) charged, “Playing politics with people’s lives is what governors like George Wallace did during segregation.” He added, “Ron DeSantis is trying to earn George Wallace’s legacy.”

DeSantis quickly and proudly took responsibility for the ploy. He apparently had even hired and dispatched a videographer to film the migrants as they were being dropped off. DeSantis gleefully predicted that people on Martha’s Vineyard would “go berserk” over the arrival of four dozen, Spanish-speaking migrants on their island. Instead, the incident became a clear example of how Republicans can’t seem to imagine a world seen through compassionate eyes.

In a moment reminiscent of the musical Come From Away, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard quickly mobilized to provide food, shelter, and clothing for the arrivals. Spanish language AP high school students came to help translate. A church on the island, which is also home to its only homeless shelter, could only accommodate 10 people, so the community scrambled to provide shelter for all of the refugees.

The optics of a stunt intended to troll liberals in the north appears instead to have gone south on DeSantis. It may even help Democrats around the country define themselves in the upcoming election against the cruelty and inhumanity of the GOP. As one resident of the island wrote in a highly viral post on social media,

What kind of a depraved individual loads up 50 people onto a plane and then dumps them in a strange place without even notifying anyone that they are coming? These are “leaders”? These are “Christians”? I’ll tell you what this is. It’s a disgusting political stunt—at the expense of human beings just wanting to work and provide for their families. But you know what? On this island we treated them with dignity, we fed them, we gave them medical attention and we will give them a warm and safe place to sleep. Tomorrow we will give them breakfast and help them figure out what’s next. Because on Martha’s Vineyard, we don’t turn out backs on people in need who are being abused by extremist Republican governors for some cheap soundbite on Fox News. Thank you to all the volunteers who were there—it restores my faith in humanity that we came together to help people in need.

For the refugees themselves, there is understandable confusion and uncertainty, especially because many do not want to miss their appointments with immigration officials to consider their asylum requests. One ironic fact is that most Venezuelan refugees in the United States are fleeing a communist regime for a better life here. Using them as political fodder may not play well among the large Venezuelan population in Florida.

But for these near 50 refugees, the welcoming and generous response of the residents of Martha’s Vineyard have given them some hope. For Ardenis Nazareth (an apt surname), a construction worker who left his home 18 months ago in search of a way to provide for his daughters back home, who survived on unripe mango, green bananas and iguanas then was robbed of all his money by thugs as he made the perilous trek northward, the reception in Martha’s Vineyard has filled him with gratitude. “They’re treating us super well,” Nazareth said, adding that he wants to start working as soon as possible.

“We’re getting food, clothing, all our needs met. I love Massachusetts!”