Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

DeSantis’s Reverse Freedom Ride Allegedly Violated Law in Two States

Defrauding migrants and misappropriating state funds.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

The Ron DeSantis approach to governance is to feed a steady flow of chum to conservative media. His most recent such measure was a made-for-Fox gambit that involved transporting two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in a modern reverse Freedom Ride. But not only did Martha’s Vineyard’s residents greet the residents with love rather than the fear DeSantis hoped to provoke, it also seems probable he violated the law in order to pull it off.

There are two potential legal violations at play: lying to the migrants and misusing state funds. Begin with the lying.

Multiple reports have found the migrants were lured onto the plane with misleading or false promises that included employment. WBUR’s Eve Zuckoff and NPR’s Luis Clemens interviewed migrants the night they arrived in Martha’s Vineyard. At least two reported a woman who called herself “Perla” promised them jobs and four months of housing at their destination:

One of the migrants told the Boston Globe, “There, a lady offered us three months of rent, work, and said they were going to put our papers in order.” The migrants have filed a class-action lawsuit against DeSantis and the Florida officials who transported them, rather undercutting DeSantis’s smarmy defense that he has done them a favor for which they feel grateful.

Yesterday, Javier Salazar, the sheriff of Bexar County in Texas, opened an investigation into whether any laws had been broken in luring the migrants onto the plane.

Of course, not every investigation leads to charges and not all charges lead to a conviction. DeSantis claims none of the migrants were promised jobs:

However, Judd Legum acquired a brochure given to the migrants, and it does promise “employment for refugees.” So either several migrants spontaneously spread the same lie upon their arrival at Martha’s Vineyard or DeSantis misled them and is lying about it.

Whether this all amounts to a crime is a matter for lawyers. But it certainly seems rather nasty.

The second alleged legal violation is that DeSantis misused state funds for his stunt. The charge — which, caveat emptor, comes from Democrats in the Florida legislature — is that DeSantis broke state law in two ways. First, the funds used for the flights were earmarked to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.” Finding migrants in Texas is not the same thing as transporting them from Florida.

And second, the law authorizes transportation of “unauthorized aliens,” but many of the people DeSantis lured onto the plane were asylum seekers. It’s not illegal to migrate to the United States and report to authorities seeking asylum. Indeed, when the refugees are coming from oppressive left-wing dictatorships such as Cuba or (in this case) Venezuela, Republicans used to regard them with sympathy.

A Republican state senator, Aaron Bean, even said in March that the funds would not apply to asylum seekers. “They are here lawfully and the bill would not apply to them,” Bean said during a floor session debating the funds. So DeSantis used the money for a purpose even members of his own party insisted it would not be used for.

When Politico asked DeSantis about this alleged legal violation, his office gave no response. And while his spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, has greeted the Texas criminal investigation with rebuttals such as — I am quoting her statement in its entirety — “Lol 🤡,” her peripatetic Twitter feed has ignored the alleged violations of Florida law.

The underlying problem here is that DeSantis is pretending to govern while using his powers to produce set pieces for Fox News. This has forced him to recruit a cast of targets who had no interest in being used this way and to employ a legal authority that was not intended for this purpose. A responsible and humane governor would never have thought of doing this in the first place and would have abandoned the plan as soon as the legal obstacles became clear. But that is not Ron DeSantis.

This story has been updated to note the class-action suit against DeSantis.

DeSantis’s Reverse Freedom Ride Allegedly Violated Laws