Was DeSantis' Martha's Vineyard stunt a crime?

Ron DeSantis.
Ron DeSantis. Illustrated | Getty Images, Library of Congress

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) rekindled the debate about illegal immigration over the U.S-Mexico border when he started busing migrants to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) soon joined in, increasing the heat. The two Republican governors said it was only fair for the Biden administration, Democratic states, and "sanctuary" cities to experience the difficulties they face as border crossings surge. But the attempts to call attention to the border only "reached a fever pitch" when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) got in on the act with his own "copycat" program, as Vox put it, flying 48 mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

DeSantis' government said his effort showed how "horribly" the Biden administration has treated migrants, and was "opening people's eyes to the solution, which is let's have a secure border." But he has prompted a massive backlash, with the asylum seekers, Democrats, and migrant advocates accusing DeSantis of duping already vulnerable people to take a cheap shot at President Biden for political gain. A Texas sheriff launched a criminal investigation and the migrants filed a class-action lawsuit, saying DeSantis' effort essentially tricked the asylum seekers with false promises of aid. Some even said the stunt could be seen as human trafficking. Is this just the kind of publicity DeSantis wanted, or could he get more trouble than he bargained for?

This could, and should, backfire on DeSantis

DeSantis clearly has "to answer for the dubious legality of his cruel stunt," says the South Florida Sun Sentinel in an editorial. He and his administration might have committed crimes, "including, potentially, human trafficking or kidnapping of the 48 vulnerable, impoverished souls who became pawns in the governor's game." The migrants are seeking refuge after fleeing the economic and political "meltdown wracking" their socialist-run South American nation. "They did nothing wrong and all available evidence suggests they were in this country legally." Their lawsuit says DeSantis' "operatives trolled outside shelters 'pretending to be good Samaritans,' offering gift cards and promising help with housing, jobs, and other needs in Boston while they awaited asylum hearings." DeSantis "has brought shame upon his state," and "swindled" Florida taxpayers "into footing the bill for this vicious boondoggle."

DeSantis stupidly left a paper trail

Unraveling this will be complicated, says Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate, but what we know doesn't look good for DeSantis. For one thing, as The Miami Herald notes, the funding DeSantis used is supposed to be used to expel "unauthorized aliens" from Florida, not Texas. DeSantis insists his operative profiled the migrants and determined they wanted to go to the Sunshine State. Writes Mathis-Lilley: "It's Minority Report, but stupid!" What could really land the Florida governor in hot water for his stunt to impress MAGA voters is the pamphlet his operatives apparently gave to the asylum seekers, promising them "cash assistance" and "assistance with housing" from Massachusetts' Office for Refugees and Immigrants. That office's aid is only for those identified as refugees by the United Nations and formally accepted for resettlement in the United States. The asylum seekers don't have that designation yet, so the pamphlet — fraudulently, one could argue — "advertised benefits that none of its recipients were eligible to receive."

The liberal reaction shows DeSantis hit the mark

The only crime here is the left's hypocrisy, says Mark Krikorian in the National Review. Liberals went "bat-guano crazy," just because "a few dozen border-jumpers arrive at the retreat of the lefty rich and famous, where 'no human is illegal' and there are enough empty mansions to house them a thousand-fold." Instead of getting the red-carpet treatment, the migrants were "given some cereal" before being unceremoniously "whisked away by soldiers" to less cushy accommodations at a military base shelter on nearby Cape Cod. "This is hypocrisy dialed up to 11, a target for mockery so irresistible that even non-political people can appreciate it. And it sure did 'infuriate the opposition' and cause them to 'react to your advantage' with laughable cries of kidnapping and human trafficking." This "guerilla political theater" mocked the red states' rivals and forced "a reluctant media to cover the border mess." Advantage, DeSantis.

This could pay off with overdue political change

"Sometimes the best way to change a policy is to make those who promote it live with its consequences," says the Las Vegas Review-Journal in an editorial. "Democrats have barely batted an eye about 2 million migrants entering the country illegally." Suddenly 50 illegal immigrants arrive on Martha's Vineyard, and "it demands immediate action." Vice President Kamala Harris recently insisted that the U.S.-Mexico border was "secure," but so many immigrants have crossed the border illegally recently that officials have released more than 1,000 people onto the streets of El Paso, Texas, alone. "Some are living under overpasses or in tents on the sidewalks. Many would like to go somewhere else, but can't afford to. Similar situations happen up and down the border." DeSantis, Abbott, and Ducey shouldn't have had to put liberal, sanctuary destinations' feet to the fire to get action, but it did. "Wealthy progressives may finally be ready to build a wall — around Martha's Vineyard."

This stunt isn't the political masterstroke DeSantis thinks

Trolling Biden and other Democrats on immigration policy "may be what Republican voters are looking for when it comes to whom they'll choose as their presidential standard-bearer," says Alex Shephard in The New Republic. That would explain why the original MAGA hero, Donald Trump, "was reportedly miffed that DeSantis stole the idea." But "it's actually not entirely clear that the 'politics' are that good." The criminal investigation "could lead to more controversial and damning disclosures. And there is ample evidence that cruel treatment to migrants does backfire politically: The Trump administration's child separation policy was one of the biggest drivers of 2018's wave election." Arguing that "mistreating migrants is good if it moves the electoral needle" is wrong, in more ways than one.

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