MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. — About 50 migrants arrived by plane in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., Wednesday on a flight paid for by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and that originated in San Antonio, Texas.
The migrants touched down at about 3:15 p.m. local time. Later Wednesday, a spokesperson for DeSantis sent a statement to NPR and other news outlets confirming that the migrants were transported by Florida under a state program that was funded by the legislature earlier this year. The statement reads in part: "States like Massachusetts, New York and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration."
The Florida statement refers to two planes, but local officials at Martha's Vineyard say there was only one.
However, a number of migrants told NPR their flight originated in San Antonio, and that they were being transported to Boston.
NPR confirmed that a plane originated in San Antonio, made a stop in Florida and then another stop in South Carolina before flying on to Martha's Vineyard. But apart from that layover, the migrants NPR interviewed had not spent time in Florida.
The unannounced flight drew anger from Massachusetts officials.
"We have the governor of Florida ... hatching a secret plot to send immigrant families like cattle on an airplane," said state Sen. Dylan Fernandes, who represents Martha's Vineyard. "Ship them women and children to a place they weren't told where they were going and never alerted local officials and people on the ground here that they were coming. It is an incredibly inhumane and depraved thing to do."
NPR was able to interview three of the migrants late Wednesday. "They (the migrants) told us they had recently crossed the border in Texas and were staying at a shelter in San Antonio," NPR's Joel Rose said on today's Morning Edition.
The migrants said a woman they identified as "Perla" approached them outside the shelter and lured them into boarding the plane, saying they would be flown to Boston where they could get expedited work papers. She provided them with food. The migrants said Perla was still trying to recruit more passengers just hours before their flight.
Andres Duarte, a 30-year-old Venezuelan, said he had recently crossed the border into Texas and eventually went to a shelter in San Antonio.
"She (Perla) offered us help. Help that never arrived," Andres said. "Now we are here. We got on the plane with a vision of the future, of making it." He went on to explain why he boarded the plane with so little information in hand. "Look, when you have no money and someone offers help, well, it means a lot."
In Martha's Vineyard, the migrants are staying at a church shelter while local authorities and nonprofit organizations figure out what's going to happen next. Lisa Del Castro, who runs a homeless shelter on the island, said resources were initially scarce.
"Everything from beds to food to clothing to toothbrushes, toothpaste, blankets, sheets. I mean, we had some of it ... but we did not have the numbers that we needed."
Most of the arrivals spoke little or no English, and Spanish-speaking high school students were pressed into service as interpreters.
Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee said many of the migrants were confused.
"We have talked to a number of people who've asked, 'Where am I?' And then I was trying to explain where Martha's Vineyard is."
The Wednesday flight extends a tactic by Republican politicians in primarily southern states have used to send migrants to Democrat-controlled cities in the north. Republican leaders have used this step to protest the rise in illegal immigration during President Biden's time in office, and the issue figures to be prominent in November's midterm elections.
Martha's Vineyard has a reputation as a destination for the progressive elite, and DeSantis has been regularly bringing up the island enclave at his press conferences. Republican governors in Texas and Arizona have also been transporting migrants from the border to northern cities at taxpayer expense.
Democrats and immigrant advocates say those governors are essentially using migrants as political pawns. But the governors say are simply calling attention to a very real problem.
The U.S. Border Patrol is on pace to record 2 million apprehensions in a fiscal year for the first time ever.
Del Castro, who runs the Martha's Vineyard shelter where the migrants spent the night, said the group is resilient.
"There's some really sad stories. And then some people, the only thing they were expressing is how grateful they are to be here, and to be safe, and cared for, right? And, you know, their needs are immense right now."
NPR spoke with Yesica, a migrant who gave only her first name because of her undocumented immigration status. She said she was uncertain about her future.
"Oh, goodness. I don't know what is going to happen to us," Yesica said, speaking in Spanish. "The truth is I am worried. It will be whatever God wishes, no? We're here now and there's nothing we can do."
"Not even," she added, "to take a step back."
Eve Zuckoff is a reporter at WCAI.