Some Republican senators are privately expressing misgivings over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) provocative decision to ship migrants from Texas to liberal enclaves such as Martha’s Vineyard.
GOP lawmakers acknowledge sending planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, where former President Obama recently bought a house, plays well on Fox News and will likely ingratiate the Florida governor with Republican primary voters if he runs for president in 2024.
But the idea of shipping migrants thousands of miles across the country to Martha’s Vineyard — an island off of Massachusetts with only 17,000 year-round resident and hardly enough housing even for seasonal summer workers — without any advance notice to local authorities, to make a political point, leaves some GOP lawmakers feeling uncomfortable.
One Senate Republican critic who requested anonymity to comment candidly on DeSantis’s Martha’s Vineyard gambit said it shows how much politics has changed since then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) made his brand “compassionate conservativism” before the 2000 election.
“It plays well to the base, but I just think of the humanity of it,” said the GOP senator. “It fires up a certain set of voters, but it turns another set of voters off.”
“The immediate media focus is on the shipping of people,” added the senator, referring to the critical media coverage of DeSantis and other Republican governors such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbot and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who have sent migrants to Chicago and Washington, D.C.
A Reuters-Ipsos poll published Friday showed that only a third of Americans think it’s appropriate for Republican governors to fly or bus migrants to other states. Half of the Republicans polled and only 1 in 6 Democrats said it was OK.
Twenty-nine percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats say they opposed the practice, according to the survey of 1,005 adults.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a leading voice in Congress on immigration issues, said DeSantis’s aggressive tack would wind up turning off middle-of-the-road voters.
He said laws may have been broken and that he would monitor how Republican governors are treating the migrants.
“More information is coming out. In fact, a lawsuit has been filed against him for alleged misrepresentations to these people. I’m just going to stay tuned and let the facts develop before making any legal conclusion,” he said.
“This is exploitation at its worse,” he added. “The MAGA Republicans will glory in this kind of outrageous conduct but normal, sensible, independent [people] I’m sure will see through it.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), another leader on immigration issues, said there may be cause for Congress to investigate whether DeSantis improperly used federal COVID-19 relief money to fly migrants around the country.
A second Republican senator called DeSantis’s decision to ship migrants from Texas “a little strange” because they were outside his state’s jurisdiction.
The senator added that Abbott, the Texas governor, who is also seen as a potential presidential candidate, “has been more cautious,” because he’s only sent migrants from his own state and hasn’t sent them any of them to Martha’s Vineyard, a destination that seemed designed to provoke liberals.
The discomfort felt by some Senate Republicans was voiced publicly by former Trump White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, who said it was “very troubling” to see DeSantis use 48 Venezuelan migrants as “political pawns.”
“I personally watch what’s happening and it’s very hard to see at the southern border. I also — we have to remember these are human beings, they’re people,” Kushner told Fox News. “So seeing them being used as political pawns one way or the other is very troubling to me.”
The growing controversy over whether it’s appropriate to ship migrants to Martha’s Vineyard or to Vice President Harris’s official residence in Northwest Washington, D.C., — as Abbott recently did — is creating some tensions in the Senate Republican Conference.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised the gambit last week as “a good idea.”
The GOP leader seemed pleased that the intense media focus on DeSantis had shifted some public attention to the huge influx of migrants at the southern border, an issue on which Republicans want to focus on ahead of the election, and away from the abortion debate, which has energized Democratic voters.
But other Republicans are stopping short of praising DeSantis, Abbott or Ducey in the same way.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she understands the frustration felt by border-state governors but that she’s proposing to pass legislation to allow migrants seeking asylum to work legally in the United States while their cases make their way through the courts, instead of sending them to states around the country with no clear way of supporting themselves.
“I understand the frustration of border state governors because the border is completely out of control. We have 2 million unauthorized crossings in a year’s time. The administration really needs to take control of this issue and figure out how we can appropriately care for those who are crossing because they are fearing in their own country,” she said.
She said allowing migrants seeking asylum to work while the legal process plays out would ease the burden on nonprofit groups and communities that are now caring for them. It takes nearly five years, on average, for an asylum case to clear the legal backlog.
A third Senate Republican who requested anonymity to discuss how DeSantis’s entry into the Texas border fray might play out politically and legally predicted the Florida governor would wind up with big legal bills.
“Obviously to be in politics today you have to have enough campaign money to pay for lawsuits and lawyers,” the senator noted.
Alianza Americas, a Chicago-based advocacy group representing migrants, this past week filed a lawsuit against DeSantis accusing him of organizing “a premeditated, fraudulent and illegal scheme” to advance his own political interests. The group is seeking to elevate the suit to class-action status.
DeSantis is also facing a criminal investigation by the sheriff of Bexar County, the home of San Antonio, who says the Florida governor’s allies “lured” Venezuelan migrants onto the plane to Martha’s Vineyard “under false pretenses.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is eyeing a potential run for president in 2024, defended DeSantis by accusing Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat who was elected to his office in 2016, of playing politics.
“I think it’s silliness. Sheriffs are elected in Texas. It’s not the first time someone is looking for a headline, but it is not remotely criminal at all for someone to offer a private jet, a flight to fly someone voluntarily to a billionaire’s paradise,” he said, referring to Martha’s Vineyard.
Other Senate Republicans are cheering on DeSantis and Abbott for putting Democrats on the political defensive.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said DeSantis doesn’t face any political risk over his gambit on migrants, even though he is already facing a criminal investigation and a civil suit.
“None, zero,” he said of the chance the politics might backfire on the Florida governor. “There are a bunch of liberals pushing back.”
“It’s good for him. The public’s with him. The public finds this, ‘Everybody, come into the country,’ insane,” he added. “I said in December of 2020 that immigration would be a bigger issue in 2022 than it was in 2020. Why? Because these policies are insane. There is no deterrence to coming by the millions now, with no end in sight. What Ron and Abbott are doing is trying to make this real to the most liberal groups in the country.”