Ron DeSantis tries to trump Trump with cynical, sadistic migrant flights

There's an ugly history behind this week's Martha's Vineyard atrocity — even if Trump thinks it was all his idea

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 16, 2022 9:56AM (EDT)

Students from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School AP Spanish class help deliver food to St Andrew's Episcopal Church on Sept. 15. Two planes of migrants from Venezuela arrived suddenly on the island Wednesday night.  (Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Students from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School AP Spanish class help deliver food to St Andrew's Episcopal Church on Sept. 15. Two planes of migrants from Venezuela arrived suddenly on the island Wednesday night. (Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

There were so many scandals during the Trump years that it's hard to remember all. Some stand out, of course, like his blatant obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation and his attempted extortion against the Ukrainian government in hopes of smearing Joe Biden. And of course Trump went out with a bang, attempting a coup and inciting an insurrection. Those things got him impeached — and may end up getting him indicted. But there was so much more.

You certainly recall the horrific family separation policy at the border, which caused an international outcry and was finally reversed under pressure. Trump eventually did build segments of his silly wall, but did not get the sharp spikes on top or the alligator moat, ideas he actually raised at various points. He asked whether the Border Patrol or National Guard could shoot undocumented immigrants at border crossings (OK, maybe just in the leg) and he campaigned on the idea of reviving the hideous 1950s policy "Operation Wetback," which rounded up immigrants (and sometimes U.S. citizens as well) and dropped them off in the Mexican desert with no food, water or money. Luckily, American law has evolved enough to prevent such inhumane practices, which I'm sure disappointed him. (These days he's proposing a similar approach with unhoused citizens in American cities, so the idea has stuck with him.)

Trump also had what he thought was an exceedingly clever plan to bus asylum seekers waiting for their court appearances to cities in blue states. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that the point of this proposal was to "retaliate against his political rivals" and that he had been pushing the idea for more than six months. He specifically wanted officials to ship suspected criminals off to "Democrat-run" cities but couldn't find a way to do that. Immigrants suspected of crimes are not released on bond, as are migrants who've been granted temporary asylum. Legal counsel for immigration officials nixed the idea, calling it "inappropriate" — largely because of liability issues and bad PR, not concern over human rights or basic decency — and it didn't go anywhere.

Trump no doubt thought he had come up with this idea himself but most likely it was Stephen Miller, his infamous immigration adviser. who put that bug in his ear. Knowing that Trump loved to take credit for all political slogans and stunts (including "Make America Great Again," "America First" and "Drain the Swamp"), Miller likely didn't tell Trump that this idea had a long and disgusting history in America, most recently going back to the civil rights era when White Citizens' Councils in the south retaliated against the Freedom Riders by rounding up Black folks and sending them to Northern cities with fake promises of jobs and opportunity, dropping them off in places where they knew no one. I'm sure they had some good laughs over that one.

I guess  that kind of stunt never falls out of fashion with the far right. Just a few months ago it came up again on Tucker Carlson's White Power hour:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott apparently saluted smartly and got right to work. By early August he was sending busloads of asylum-seekers to New York and Washington, D.C., "as part of the Governor's response to the Biden Administration's open border policies," as an official statement from his office put it. (Never mind that the Biden administration has no such policies.)

Those two cities have been coping with the influx, and a number of charities and churches have stepped in to help. This is stretching their already stretched systems, but so far no one has even contemplated putting the migrants on buses back to Houston or San Antonio (or maybe to other red-state cities) because the officials in New York and D.C., whatever their flaws, aren't monsters. They are trying to figure out ways to help these people find family members and get jobs and housing as they await hearings on whether they qualify to stay in the U.S.

Not to be outdone by Abbott's stunt, the GOP's current troll king, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, decided this week to take Carlson's advice to send asylum seekers to Martha's Vineyard, the affluent resort island off the coast of Massachusetts. Even though Florida is not a border state, DeSantis has already had the state legislature appropriate millions for the purpose of sending migrants out of state. (His lieutenant governor made a major gaffe, however, when she suggested the state might use that money to send the recent influx of Cuban refugees back to that island, a huge political no-no in Florida.)

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Since DeSantis didn't have any refugees readily available to expel this week, he used his forced deportation money to charter a couple of jets and coerce migrants who were in Texas — halfway across the country — to board them, claiming they were being sent to Boston with promises of resources and support. Instead the migrants were dropped off on Martha's Vineyard, a famous summer resort with a year-round population of around 15,000. No one there knew they were coming, and they were essentially dumped at the island's tiny airport like cargo. 

Since DeSantis didn't have any refugees available in Florida, he chartered a couple of jets and coerced migrants in Texas — halfway across the country — to board them, claiming they were going to Boston and promising resources and support.

DeSantis arranged for a video crew to record this atrocity for the entertainment of the xenophobic miscreants who watch Tucker Carlson's network. No doubt they enjoyed watching the footage of exhausted mothers and fathers with small children in their arms walking across the tarmac and wondering where the hell they were. Locals on Martha's Vineyard rose to the occasion, somewhat redeeming the reputation of human beings by offering the new arrivals food and shelter, along with legal advice and emotional support.

DeSantis seems exceedingly proud of his immoral little stunt. He held a press conference in which he claimed that his reasoning for chartering airplanes to abduct migrants in Texas and fly them to the New England coast was to save money:

One of the reasons why we want to transfer [people is] because, obviously it's expensive if people are coming here, you got to pay taxes, social services, and all these other things.

A lot of Floridians love this stuff, apparently. Consider, DeSantis' "election police force," a particularly flamboyant display of government waste. He's up for re-election and leading Democrat Charlie Crist in the polls. Most observers don't think it will be all that close. Greg Abbott is also running for another term (against Democrat Beto O'Rourke), and he dropped off a busload of asylum seekers in front of the Naval Observatory in D.C. this week — that's the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris. Abbott and DeSantis' biggest fans are uncomfortably similar to the White Citizens' Council members who clearly enjoyed the misery they inflicted by sending Black citizens north under false pretenses. They are cruel, immoral bigots who take pleasure in hurting others.

I'm sure the other Big Florida Man is gnashing his teeth in Mar-a-Lago over DeSantis, his likely 2024 opponent, getting all this great press for owning the libs when Trump thinks it was all his idea in the first place. If he slithers back to the White House you can bet he'll seek to get this done on a national scale. But so will any other Republican likely to get elected to national office anytime soon. The red-state "laboratories of democracy" are leading the way. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Greg Abbott Immigration Martha's Vineyard Migrants Republicans Ron Desantis