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Bob Drogin is a former reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times.
I woke early Thursday at my home in West Tisbury, one of six small towns on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, to find deer munching my shrubs, an early fall chill in the air and the disturbing news that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had flown about 50 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, to the island’s airport.
Local officials were notified only 20 minutes before the migrants arrived. The migrants say they were told, falsely, they were headed to housing and jobs in New York or Boston.
Many were confused, according to Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee. “We have talked to a number of people who’ve asked, ‘Where am I?’ And then I was trying to explain where Martha’s Vineyard is.”
It was cruel, of course. It was deeply cynical. But the disgraceful stunt made for striking political theater. DeSantis is sometimes described as Donald Trump with a brain, which, depending on your point of view, is either reassuring or very scary. DeSantis faces reelection this November and is considering his own White House bid. His surgical strike into a distant liberal enclave showed he is serious as a heart attack, as they say in Florida, about competing for Trump’s voters.
As he undoubtedly wanted, DeSantis ginned up endless headlines and liberal outrage, catnip for his campaign. He told reporters on Thursday that his goal was to share the burden of illegal immigration with Democratic states. “It shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states,” he said.
Still, his performance clearly fell flat here. Using Florida taxpayers’ money, he chartered two planes to fly a few dozen people, including at least 10 children, thousands of miles, on flights originating in San Antonio to a rural Massachusetts island that sees its population ebb and flow by tens of thousands every summer. A tourist bus or two more won’t make much difference here.
In recent months, DeSantis — who attended Yale and Harvard Law — has publicly mocked the Vineyard as a symbol of Democratic elitism. He apparently prefers the nearby smaller island of Nantucket, which even Vineyarders consider elitist. On Aug. 9, according to the Boston Globe, the Florida governor was scheduled to be the featured speaker at a $5,000-a-couple fundraiser sponsored by hedge fund owners on Nantucket.
If DeSantis hoped to spur anti-immigrant sentiment on the Vineyard, he failed. The island has welcomed immigrants for years. More than 12 percent of the 17,000 full-time residents are foreign born, according to the 2020 census. And for all the breathless reporting that calls the Vineyard a playground of the rich, it’s also an increasingly diverse community. Some 22 percent of residents are nonwhite.
In any case, islanders more than met the DeSantis challenge. St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown quickly rounded up 50 cots and mattresses and housed the migrants. An emergency room doctor came down from Boston, while lawyers offered pro bono services. Five restaurants donated far more food than the group could possibly eat. High school students studying Spanish came to translate. The Islanders Talk page on Facebook exploded with offers to help, and donations poured into a Community Services fund. So many volunteers rushed the church with toys, clothes, bedding and other supplies that the police finally pleaded for a stop to keep traffic flowing.
“We literally have everything we need,” Lisa Belcastro, the island’s homeless shelter coordinator, told reporters Thursday.
DeSantis isn’t alone of course. Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona have bused about 10,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., since April, overwhelming services so badly that last week District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public emergency. On Thursday, two buses from Texas dropped 101 migrants from Colombia, Venezuela and other countries near Vice President Kamala Harris’ official residence.
“The fact that Fox News and not the Department of Homeland Security, the city or local NGOs were alerted about a plan to leave migrants, including children, on the side of a busy D.C. street makes clear that this is just a cruel, premeditated political stunt,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Most of the newcomers presumably will face immigration hearings, and there is talk from Boston of temporary housing on a military base on Cape Cod until the cases are sorted out. At some point, perhaps they can stake their claims on the American dream.
They may yet thank DeSantis for the free ride away from intolerance.