Emergency shelters were opened Wednesday night on the island of Martha's Vineyard following the unannounced arrival of at least two planes with undocumented immigrants, according to local officials.
A representative from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' office told NBC10 Boston that two planes had come from his state. According to the Boston Globe, the migrants are from Venezuela and there are about 50 of them in all.
Massachusetts officials initially said planes came from Texas, a state that's had a policy of sending undocumented immigrants elsewhere in the U.S., but it wasn't clear if any planes actually came in from the state.
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DeSantis' move is an escalation of a tactic being used by some Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration's failed border policies.
Massachusetts’ Gov. Charlie Baker, a centrist Republican, said he is supporting officials on the island after learning of the situation.
"The Baker-Polito Administration is in touch with local officials regarding the arrival of migrants in Martha's Vineyard," Baker representative Terry MacCormack said in a statement. "At this time, short-term shelter services are being provided by local officials, and the Administration will continue to support those efforts."
He later issued a statement noting the many resources in the Bay State for dealing with immigrants of "varying immigration statuses and needs" and said his administration was looking into a plan for rehousing the migrants: "temporary shelter and humanitarian services at Joint Base Cape Cod."
Massachusetts lawmakers denounce 'cruel stunt'
Lawmakers from the Bay State condemned the move, saying it's "manipulating people who are in very dire circumstances for political gain."
"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," Democratic Massachusetts Congressman William Keating said on Twitter. Keating represents Martha's Vineyard.
Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said DeSantis "could learn a lesson from Massachusetts on what patriotism and liberty really look like if he weren't so busy using humans as props in a cruel stunt to buoy his pathetic political aspirations."
Martha's Vineyard responds to crisis
Despite that, it appears the migrants have been welcomed to the Vineyard with open arms.
Local officials, social services and community members quickly set up a shelter at an Edgartown church, complete with beds, food, water, medical care and even a play area for children Wednesday night.
"We put together 50 beds, blew up air mattresses, and when they came, they were hungry and thirsty, understandably," Democratic State Rep. Dylan Fernandes said.
The county emergency management association tweeted Wednesday evening it would create emergency shelters "due to an unexpected urgent #humanitarian situation," county officials said.
If Wednesday was about uncertainty, Thursday was marked by compassion as wave after wave of island resident showed up with food and clothing.
"It is very touching to see people care about you when they don't even know you," one man said in Spanish.
He left Venezuela two months ago, hiking threw nine countries in search of a better life for his 4-year-old son.
"I feel like we got lucky," he said. "I feel we arrived blessed."
"You are not alone. We have your backs, we are proud to be here for you," said immigration attorney Rachel Self. "If the intention of those who perpetrated this heinous act was to create a crisis, you have failed."
Officials say the two chartered planes landed on Martha's Vineyard at around 3 p.m. Wednesday with dozens of undocumented immigrants on board, including children.
"There was no advance notice of these migrant families arriving," said Democratic State Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and Islands.
"Some of these people, I've been told, traveled months just to get to the border and then were sent here in an airplane with very little information about where they're going or why they were going there," said Fernandes, whose district also includes Martha's Vineyard.
"It's manipulating people who are in very dire circumstances for political gain," Cyr added.
DeSantis confirms flights, says 'we are not a sanctuary state'
Confirming that Florida had flown immigrants to Massachusetts, Fenske said it was "part of the state's relocation program to transport [undocumented immigrants] to sanctuary destinations," referring to municipalities that keep local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officials working to deport undocumented immigrants.
She said Massachusetts and other such states "will better facilitate the care of these individuals," claiming the immigrants were "invited into our country" through political positions, including "the Biden Administration's open border policies."
While DeSantis’ office didn’t elaborate on their legal status, many migrants who cross the border illegally from Mexico are temporarily shielded from deportation after being freed by U.S. authorities to pursue asylum in immigration court — as allowed under U.S law and international treaty — or released on humanitarian parole.
Speaking at an event Thursday, DeSantis again confirmed that he was behind the move to send the migrants to Martha's Vineyard.
“We are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and yes we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures," he said. “Biden would fly people in the middle of the night, dump them all across this country -- there was no warning on any of this, and all those people in D.C. and New York were beating their chest when Trump was president, saying they were so proud to be sanctuary jurisdictions, saying how bad it was to have a secure border.”
“The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day is brought to their front door they all of a sudden go berserk and they’re so upset that this is happening and it just shows you their virtue signaling is a fraud," he added.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz also released a statement writing in part, "Even for Ron DeSantis, this is a new low. ... He took dozens of families and children, reportedly from Venezuela and Colombia, away from everyone that they know, flew them across the country, and left them by the side of the road without shelter or direction – all in order to score political points."
Early reports from state lawmakers in Massachusetts had indicated the undocumented immigrants arrived in Martha's Vineyard from Texas, though it wasn't immediately clear if any planes had actually arrived from there.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing thousands of migrants to Washington in April and recently added New York and Chicago as destinations. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has been busing migrants to Washington since May. Passengers must sign waivers that the free trips are voluntary.
A spokesperson for Abbott said Thursday that while his office has had conversations with DeSantis about supporting their busing strategy "to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed and overrun border communities," they had no involvement in the planes that arrived in Martha's Vineyard on Wednesday.
"Though we were not involved in these initial planes to Martha’s Vineyard, we appreciate the support in responding to this national crisis and helping Texans. Governor Abbott encourages and welcomes all his fellow governors to engage in this effort to secure the border and focus on the failing and illegal efforts of the Biden-Harris Administration to continue these reckless open border policies.”
DeSantis, who is mentioned as potential presidential candidate, appears to be taking Abbott's strategy to a new level by using planes and choosing Martha’s Vineyard, whose harbor towns that are home to about 15,000 people are far less prepared than New York or Washington for large influxes of migrants. The move is likely to delight DeSantis’ supporters who deride Democrat-led, immigrant-friendly “sanctuary” cities and anger critics who say he is weaponizing migrants as pawns for political gain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.