Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, created an “urgent humanitarian situation” in Massachusetts, authorities said, by deporting about 50 undocumented migrants to Martha’s Vineyard with no apparent notice.
Two planes carrying mostly Venezuelan and Colombian adults and children landed on the island on Wednesday afternoon, as part of what DeSantis’s office said was “a relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations”.
In a separate development on Thursday, two buses from Texas carrying about 100 predominantly Venezuelan migrants were dropped off outside the home of the vice-president, Kamala Harris, in Washington.
Like DeSantis, the Republican Texas governor, Greg Abbott, has adopted a confrontational and theatrical approach to the Biden administration over immigration, sending migrants on buses to New York, Chicago and the capital, all cities with Democratic mayors.
In Massachusetts, authorities scrambled to accommodate the migrants sent by DeSantis, most of whom had no idea where they were being taken, spoke little to no English and were left to walk several miles from the airport into a nearby town to seek help. Some told aid workers they had been promised jobs and housing.
“There was no advance notice to anyone in Martha’s Vineyard or Massachusetts that these migrants were arriving, to my knowledge,” said Julian Cyr, a state senator.
The Dukes county emergency management association activated emergency shelters and other resources usually reserved for hurricanes, in order to deal with the “unexpected urgent humanitarian situation”.
The move is a dramatic escalation of a feud over immigration between DeSantis, who is expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, and the Biden administration.
Politicians in Massachusetts and Florida said the governor was exploiting human misery to score political points.
“History does not look kindly on leaders who treat human beings like cargo, loading them up and sending them a thousand miles away without telling them their destination,” the Massachusetts congressman Bill Keating said in a tweet.
“Still, Florida governor Ron DeSantis made that choice today. Instead of trying to help them, [he] chose to charter a private jet and send them to a rural island community late in the day and without warning so they wouldn’t have the resources at the ready to support them.”
Other Republican governors, including Abbott and Doug Ducey of Arizona, have sent undocumented migrants to Democrat-run cities and states. Massachusetts has a Republican governor, Charlie Baker, whose spokesperson gave no indication he was informed in advance.
DeSantis’s favored news network, Fox News, was given prior knowledge, showing footage of the migrants’ arrival on Wednesday night as an “exclusive”.
“States like Massachusetts, New York and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivising illegal immigration through their designation as ‘sanctuary states’ and support for the Biden administration’s open border policies,” a DeSantis spokesperson, Taryn Fenske, said in a statement.
The Republican-held Florida legislature approved a state budget earlier this year giving DeSantis $12m for a program to deport migrants, although the Wednesday flights appeared to have originated in Texas and it was unclear if the occupants had ever been in Florida.
Other details are similarly opaque. Florida has provided no information about who the migrants are or how they were chosen, or about the logistics of the operation including the private company receiving Florida taxpayer money to fly them.
The Florida congressman Charlie Crist, the Democrat seeking to oust DeSantis in November’s midterms, blasted the move as a “heartless political stunt” intended to bolster his opponent’s wider ambitions.
“Everything Ron DeSantis does is to score political points with his hard-right base in a thinly veiled attempt to run for president, but it’s Floridians who pay the price,” Crist said in a statement.
“The 4.5m immigrants who call Florida home must be wondering if they’re next.”
Cyr, a Massachusetts state senator who represents Martha’s Vineyard, likened DeSantis’s action to racist southern segregationists relocating African American families to northern states with false promises of housing and employment half a century ago.
“No one should be capitalizing on the difficult circumstances that these families are in and contorting that for the purposes of a ‘gotcha’ moment.”
In Washington on Thursday, the large group of migrant families deposited outside the Naval Observatory was taken to a local church and given food.
Abbott has received similar bipartisan criticism to DeSantis for transporting migrants over long distances to make a political protest. He has told those who have condemned his actions to take it up with Biden.
Officials from an aid agency called to help the migrants expressed annoyance at finding reporters already there.
“I was surprised to see [the media] here before we could get here. So the press knew the location before we did … it’s very frustrating,” Carla Bustillos, of Sanctuary DMV, told Fox News.