IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Punked': DeSantis keeps White House, Delaware and media guessing on migrant flight plans

A flight initially bound for Delaware on Tuesday was rerouted to New Jersey.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at Turning Point USA Student Action Summit on July 22, 2022, in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa, Fla., on July 22.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP file

The White House and the Delaware governor’s office were ready. So were the news media and political onlookers.

Everyone who gathered Tuesday at a small airport in Georgetown, Delaware, near President Joe Biden’s home, was waiting in anticipation of a planeload of migrants to be flown from San Antonio as part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' program to send a message about illegal immigration.

But by late Tuesday, no plane had arrived. Instead, it landed in Teterboro, New Jersey, just outside New York City, where Biden was in town for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting.

No migrants were aboard the plane.

Earlier in the day, DeSantis stoked the coals of speculation by declining to confirm or deny whether the plane would even take off — his administration later refused to say if the plane that landed in New Jersey was part of his program to relocate migrants in an intentional effort to keep the issue alive, said a source familiar with the governor's thinking who discussed the plans anonymously to speak candidly.

“He didn’t tell anyone and purposely left people in the dark. So technically the media, the Democrats, everyone got punked who decided to heed some s--- on Twitter instead of waiting for confirmation from the governor’s office," the source said. "The entire point of this is to put a spotlight on the border. It’s what the governor has said.”

Just last week, DeSantis chartered two planes carrying about 50 migrants from the same city, San Antonio, to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, escalating a tactic first used by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has sent thousands of migrants to New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., liberal strongholds that bill themselves as “sanctuary cities” for migrants.

The “Waiting for Godot”-like spectacle Tuesday highlighted the intractable politics around immigration, as well as DeSantis’ knack for getting headlines and positioning himself to challenge Biden in 2024. While Abbott was the first GOP governor to send migrants to so-called sanctuary cities and states, DeSantis has gotten far more coverage of his new program — even though the migrants who landed in Martha's Vineyard boarded the planes in Abbott's state.

“If you believe in open borders, then it’s the sanctuary jurisdictions that should have to bear the brunt of the open borders,” DeSantis told reporters in Florida earlier Tuesday.

Even Biden made an off-the-cuff joke about speculation over the potential flight to Delaware.

“He should come visit. We have a beautiful shoreline,” Biden said of DeSantis when he was asked whether a group of migrants would get off a plane near his home.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre accused DeSantis of not wanting a workable, bipartisan solution on immigration. She said the White House was prepared to help Delaware.

“Our heads-up did not come from Gov. DeSantis, because his only goal is, as he’s made it really clear, is to create chaos and use immigrants fleeing communism as political pawns,” she said. “So it’s about creating political theater for him. It’s not about getting to a solution.”

A spokeswoman for Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Biden ally, said his office was aware of the possible flight and was ready to meet the challenge.

Delaware government officials said they hadn’t had any sort of communication from the governors of Florida or Texas. An aide to Carney hung around Delaware Coastal Airport in Georgetown on Tuesday, refreshing a public flight-tracking website and telling reporters that she didn’t have any more information or knowledge about the events than what had been reported.

Jill Fredel, a spokesperson for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, said that community partners had stepped forward to help organize support networks for migrants and that the state was “prepared to meet their immediate needs.” Fredel added that Delaware was working to set up a donation website to collect money for the migrants but that the website wasn’t yet ready.

It turned out the website wouldn't be needed Tuesday.

The flight plans filed Monday night showed the plane would leave San Antonio, with Delaware as its final destination, and the itinerary was quickly picked up on Twitter. But the plans were changed Tuesday, with full awareness that doing so would cause public confusion. Florida officials didn’t reveal any details about the flight or say whether it was carrying migrants to keep both the story and the immigration issue front and center.

DeSantis had repeatedly pledged to send migrants to Biden’s home state and to Martha’s Vineyard, an island with vacation homes for high-profile liberals like former President Barack Obama. It’s also one of “the most posh sanctuary jurisdictions, maybe, in the world,” DeSantis said.

“Obviously,” DeSantis said, “it’s sad that Martha’s Vineyard people deported them the next day. They could have absorbed this. They chose not to, but what it shows is if 50 was a burden on one of the richest places in our country, what about all these other communities that have been overrun with hundreds or thousands?”

Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard, on Sept. 14.
Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard, on Sept. 14.Ray Ewing / Vineyard Gazette via AP

The migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard weren’t deported; they were moved to a military base near Cape Cod. Many residents said they didn’t have the resources to house and care for the migrants, prompting conservatives to accuse them of hypocrisy because of the number of empty homes on the island owned by millionaires and billionaires.

While DeSantis earned the accolades of Republicans and immigration hard-liners, the condemnation from immigrants’ advocates and Democrats has been just as steady.

Florida Democrats have called for an investigation of DeSantis’ decision to take migrants found in San Antonio and fly them to other states, because the Florida budget specifies that state money is supposed to be spent on “unauthorized aliens” found “in this state,” not Texas or elsewhere. Florida Republicans, who control the Legislature, have ignored calls to launch a probe.

In San Antonio, Bexar County’s Democratic sheriff pledged to launch an investigation because, he said, the migrants were hoodwinked by the Florida vendors, who have been accused of making false promises of food, housing and cash assistance in Massachusetts, where no such benefits were waiting.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based group that represents 30 of the migrants, has asked Massachusetts state and federal authorities to investigate, as well. The legal aid group noted that the migrants were given a two-page brochure purporting to promise benefits for refugees — even though most of the people were or are asylum-seekers from Venezuela who wouldn’t qualify as refugees for years.

Florida officials say the brochure’s information was drawn word-for-word from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants but the office’s chief of staff, Falah Hashem, said of the brochure itself, “This is not ours.”

Another law firm representing some of the migrants sued DeSantis in Boston on Tuesday, alleging fraud and abuse. The DeSantis administration responded by issuing a copy of a consent form it said the migrants had signed waiving "all liability arising out of or in any way relating to any injuries and damages that may occur" from the move to Massachusetts.

DeSantis has repeatedly said Florida’s relocation program is humane. He and his administration said that the migrants flown out of Texas went voluntarily and that they had been found homeless and hungry but were fed and housed by Florida taxpayers for at least a day before they boarded the planes to Martha’s Vineyard.

At the airport in Delaware, the political drama drew a flood of media and a few Republican voters who came to support DeSantis and criticize Biden and Democrats.

“If you say you’re a sanctuary state, then don’t complain. Biden’s house is not so far away from here. We should park a few on his street,” said Kenneth Cook, 54, a Delaware resident who voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020.

“I don’t like how there’s all this talk about it being immoral,” he said. “I thought we were all in this together. Share in the pain — whether you’re president, God or anyone else.”

Marc Caputo reported from Florida and Lauren Egan reported from Delaware.