Ron DeSantis is running for president as the man who took on two magical kingdoms. The first, as my colleague Pema Levy recently documented in a profile for the magazine, is Disney World. The second is Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts that’s a summertime haven for the ultra-wealthy.
At a campaign event in Iowa on Wednesday, amid jabs at Anthony Fauci, “gender ideology,” and workplace diversity, the Florida Republican governor drew applause when he talked about having sent “illegal aliens to beautiful Martha’s Vineyard,” according to Semafor’s David Weigel.
What DeSantis is referring to here was a stunt he pulled last year, during a conservative frenzy over what they termed “Biden’s Border Crisis.” As Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey made headlines for bussing asylum seekers to Democratic enclaves, such as Washington, DC, and New York City, DeSantis was eager to get in on the action. But because Florida does not share a border with Mexico, he had to get creative. He sent a plane to Texas to pick up asylum seekers, and then flew 49 of them to Martha’s Vineyard—where Fox News cameras were waiting for them.
The circumstances in which those migrants ended up in DeSantis’ little TV special were exceedingly shady; as the New York Times reported, they were recruited by a fixer who gave them brochures and told them they were going to Massachusetts—but not that very specific part of Massachusetts you need a boat to leave. When another stunt trip to Biden’s home state of Delaware fell through, asylum seekers who had been recruited were reportedly abandoned at a hotel. DeSantis paid for all of this stagecraft by tapping into a fund the legislature had approved “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” Because the migrants had actually come from a different state, a Democratic lawmaker sued DeSantis, arguing that the funds couldn’t be applied; the legislature then passed a new law that expanded DeSantis’ powers.
That’s all pretty gross, if you are of the opinion that desperate people shouldn’t be used as unwitting extras for campaign B-roll, and that promising people help and then abandoning them on an island that wasn’t expecting them is “bad.” But here’s the thing: The people DeSantis flew to Martha’s Vineyard were not “illegal aliens” (to use his pejorative for undocumented migrants). They were not “unauthorized aliens,” to use the legislature’s term. They were asylum seekers. And seeking asylum, no matter how much work successive Republican and Democratic administrations have put into eroding the concept, is not illegal. The people DeSantis flew to Martha’s Vineyard had a right to be in the United States, and they have a right to stay here if their claims are approved. DeSantis is ascribing a false allegation of wrongdoing to the people he in fact victimized with his behavior. Many of those asylum-seekers are currently suing the Florida governor for his involvement in the stunt, alleging that he engaged in a “premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests.”
It can feel pointless to fact-check a candidate who does not care that he’s wrong. But in kicking off his campaign in this way, DeSantis is echoing the style and politics of the man he seeks to supplant, Donald Trump, who began his own bid for president eight years ago by characterizing migrants who were crossing the southern border as “rapists.” Trump was lying then, but he told that lie because he meant it. This is not a trivial slip-up from DeSantis, either. It is a falsehood that expresses a truth: Whether your papers say you belong here is not the same thing as whether Ron DeSantis and his fans think you do.