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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference, Sept. 7, 2022, in Miami. (AP) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference, Sept. 7, 2022, in Miami. (AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference, Sept. 7, 2022, in Miami. (AP)

Maria Ramirez Uribe
By Maria Ramirez Uribe September 16, 2022
Yacob Reyes
By Yacob Reyes September 16, 2022

If Your Time is short

  • The Venezuelan immigrants who arrived in Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14 likely were released by Customs and Border Protection after initial screening for asylum, according to news reports and experts.

  • Elected officials likely aren't breaking federal laws when they are busing or flying out of their states immigrants who are illegally in the country — as long as the immigrants are traveling willingly and have been released by immigration authorities, experts told PolitiFact. 

  • The number of times Border Patrol has encountered migrants at the southwest border is up, but experts told PolitiFact it's not as simple as blaming Biden and his policies.

Whether President Joe Biden is doing enough to limit illegal immigration is a key issue raised by Republicans this midterm election cycle.

To draw attention to the topic, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew around 50 immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, on Sept. 14 — surprising local officials and making them scramble to accommodate the group. 

DeSantis isn't the first Republican governor to send newly arriving migrants out of his state:

  • Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bused more than 7,000 immigrants to Democratic-led cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. On Sept. 15, Abbott sent two buses of immigrants to Vice President Kamala Harris' residence in the nation's capital; and

  • Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, has bused around 1,800 migrants to Washington D.C. 

The act has become a political move in an election year, rather than an effective immigration control strategy, said Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. 

"Sending buses to the doorstep of the vice president’s home. I mean, what sense does that make unless you're making a political point," Chishti said. "The underlying political motivation here can not be understated."

Underscoring the political nature of the strategy, DeSantis has featured it in his campaign ads.

His re-election campaign posted an ad on Facebook, asking, "Where should Biden's buses of illegal immigrants be sent? Delaware? D.C.? California? New York?" 

Here's what we know about the group of immigrants that arrived in Martha's Vineyard and other issues related to the transportation of immigrants by Republican governors.

Who are the immigrants sent to Martha's Vineyard?

The immigrants who arrived in Martha's Vineyard are mostly from Venezuela and were likely released by Customs and Border Protection after initial screening for asylum eligibility, according to news reports and experts. The migrants initially were in San Antonio, Texas.

Typically, when Border Patrol agents encounter immigrants at the southwest border, they question them and decide whether they have a reasonable fear of returning to their home country. If they do, they can seek asylum in the U.S. People allowed to apply for asylum are detained or released while they await their court proceedings. 

U.S. diplomatic relations with Venezuela are tense, and there are no direct flights between the two countries. That complicates the return of Venezuelan nationals to their native country after they encounter Border Patrol at the southern border.

This is why Border Patrol does not usually expel Venezuelan migrants through a public health policy that's in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, said David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Title 42 has been used to deny entry to some immigrants at the border.

When immigrants are released at the border, they don’t enter state custody, Chishti said. Instead, they often receive shelter from nonprofit organizations that help them find housing while they await their immigration case hearing. Often, immigrants will travel to other states and cities within the U.S. where they have friends or family. 

The cost of transportation or travel is the immigrant's responsibility, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit that is supportive of immigration. That's why free bus or plane rides offered by state governments can be enticing.

In June 2022, the Florida Legislature allocated $12 million to the Florida Department of Transportation for a "program to facilitate the transport" of immigrants in the country illegally. However, until the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis had not used the program, saying that a similar program in Texas had taken pressure off of Florida.

The governor's office told PolitiFact that Florida's program seeks to identify immigrants who are illegally in the U.S. and "connect them with voluntary opportunities to reach sanctuary destinations and high-wealth areas" that support Biden’s policies.

Is it legal for state leaders to bus or fly immigrants to other states?

It is against federal law to transport or attempt to transport immigrants "knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact" that they are in the country illegally.

But experts have told PolitiFact that elected officials likely aren't breaking immigration law when they bus or fly immigrants who have been screened and released by CBP — as long as the immigrants are traveling willingly. 

Some immigrants in Martha’s Vineyard told NPR that a woman approached them outside a shelter in San Antonio and talked to them about boarding a plane to Boston "where they could get expedited work papers."

Immigrants seeking asylum aren’t eligible to apply for work permits under immigration law until 150 days after they apply for asylum. 

Bier from the Cato Institute said that although transporting the immigrants is not illegal, using deception is, and should be investigated in this case. California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom urged the Justice Department on Sept. 15 to investigate.

What are ‘sanctuary states’?

DeSantis said at a press conference Sept. 15 that Florida isn’t a "sanctuary state," and that the state would continue to facilitate transport for immigrants in the country illegally. DeSantis and other Republican governors have targeted sanctuary states and cities when transporting migrants.

The American Immigration Council defines sanctuary policies as those where "state and local officials will limit their cooperation with federal immigration officials, but do not actively prevent federal officials from carrying out their immigration enforcement duties."

Chishti, from the Migration Policy Institute, says the term is more political than legal.

"There's no legal definition of a sanctuary city. It just doesn't exist," Chishti said. "It's a catch-all phrase, in popular terminology, to include a bunch of states and cities depending on various levels of their attitudes toward immigrants."

References to sanctuary states and cities often include ones like California, which provides immigrants in the country illegally with driver's licenses, or New York City, that provides shelter services to everyone, regardless of their immigration status.

Are Biden’s immigration policies to blame for increased immigration?

The number of times Border Patrol has encountered migrants at the southwest border is up, but experts said it's not as simple as blaming Biden and his policies.  

Immigration laws continue to be enforced by Border Patrol under the Biden administration, as they were under former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump's administration invoked a public health policy, Title 42, so immigration officials can quickly expel immigrants arriving at the southern border without letting them apply for asylum. Biden's administration has continued that policy.

"The goal is to expel people under Title 42 as fast as they can," the Cato Institute’s Bier said. "That's the policy that's been pursued under this administration."

But there have been some changes in how that policy is applied in the current administration.

For example, unaccompanied minors can no longer be sent back to Mexico. And migrants from countries with strained diplomatic relations with the United States, such as Venezuela, are often not subject to that policy.

Experts say poverty, climate change and violence compel immigrants to leave their countries, and many of those factors have been further aggravated by the pandemic. That means regardless of the policies Biden implements, people have strong motivations to leave their countries and come to the United States.

"We've been getting people at the border in large numbers through the last three administrations," Chishti said. "To say that the Biden administration is inviting people just doesn't match reality."

Smuggling organizations also capitalize on leadership changes to convince people to migrate. 

Experts previously told PolitiFact that when Trump was in office promoting a border wall, smugglers would urge people to cross the border before a wall went up. With Biden in office, smugglers now tell people that laws are more relaxed and passage will be easier.

Smugglers "will always find arguments to give people hope," Manfredo Marroquín, founder of Acción Ciudadana in Guatemala, a nongovernment organization working to strengthen democracy in Guatemala, told PolitiFact in 2021.

On Sept. 15, the day after migrants arrived in Martha’s Vineyard, Biden criticized DeSantis and other Republican governors for using human beings as political "props." 

"We have a process in place to manage migrants at the border," Biden said at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala that ushered in Hispanic Heritage Month.

Republican officials, Biden said, "should not interfere with that process by waging these political stunts."

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Our Sources

Phone interview with Geoffrey Freeman, Martha's Vineyard airport director, Sept. 15, 2022

Email interview with Terry MacCormack, press secretary for Baker, Sept. 15, 2022

Phone interview with Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, Sept. 15, 2022

Phone interview with David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, Sept. 15, 2022

Statement from Cape and Islands State Senator Julian Cyr, Sept. 15, 2022

Email exchange, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, Sept. 15, 2022

10 Tampa Bay, ‘We are not a sanctuary state’: DeSantis defends migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard, Sept. 15, 2022

Twitter, Ron DeSantis, Sept. 15, 2022

The Florida Senate, HB 5001: General Appropriations Act, June 3 2022

Gov. Greg Abbott, Letter, April 6, 2022

Office of the Texas Governor, Operation Lone Star Accelerates Migrant Busing To Sanctuary City NYC, Aug. 26, 2022

The Texas Tribune, Fight over border security escalates after governors send migrants to Kamala Harris' home, Martha's Vineyard, Sept. 15, 2022

MSNBC, Arizona's Ducey joins Abbott in busing migrants to Washington, May 13, 2022

Facebook, Ad, Sept. 10, 2022

Facebook, Ad, Sept. 10, 2022

Congressional Research Service, U.S. Border Patrol Encounters at the Southwest Border: Titles 8 & 42, May 20, 2022

Georgetown Law, Immigration Law (U.S.) Research Guide, accessed Sept. 15, 2022

PolitiFact, Despite uptick in border encounters, policies for adults traveling alone haven't changed under Biden, June 2, 2022

PolitiFact, Title 42 is not ‘the last tool' Border Patrol has to prevent illegal immigration, Aug. 31, 2022

NPR, Migrants on Martha's Vineyard flight say they were told they were going to Boston, Sept. 15, 2022

Reuters, U.S. orders suspension of flights between the U.S. and Venezuela, May 15, 2019

The New York Times, Florida Flies 2 Planeloads of Migrants to Martha's Vineyard, Sept. 14, 2022

Jeanette Nuñez, Twitter, Aug. 22, 2022

PolitiFact, Greg Abbott says he will transport immigrants arriving illegally at the border to DC. Is that legal?, April 8, 2022

Legal Information Institute, 8 U.S. Code § 1324 - Bringing in and harboring certain aliens, accessed Sept. 15, 2022

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Work permits and Social Security numbers, accessed Sept. 15, 2022

PolitiFact, A surprising number of Americans believe these false claims about immigrants. Here are the facts, Sept. 6, 2022

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Ron DeSantis' claim that a U.S. process doesn't vet immigrants, Feb. 18, 2022

CNN, DeSantis claims credit for sending 2 planes carrying migrants to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, Sept. 15, 2022

American Immigration Council, Sanctuary policies: An overview, Oct. 21, 2020

National Conference of State Legislatures, States Offering Driver's Licenses to Immigrants, Aug. 9, 2021

New York City Office of Civil Justice, Universal Access to Legal Services, 2020

PolitiFact, Border Patrol encounters up because high level of migrants seeking to cross border multiple times, Aug. 30, 2022

PolitiFact, Explaining the Supreme Court immigration ruling on ‘Remain in Mexico', July 7, 2022

Department of Homeland Security, DHS Statement on U.S. District Court's decision regarding MPP, Aug. 8, 2022

PolitiFact, Central America and the root causes of migration to the U.S., June 7, 2021

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