SAN ANTONIO — For most of Tuesday, officials in Delaware and members of the public checked the status of a charter flight that was supposed to travel from San Antonio to President Joe Biden’s home state.
The plane’s scheduled flight plan bore the hallmarks of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ operation last week to fly 48 Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. It was chartered by the same company, Ultimate JetCharters, that arranged the two flights to Martha’s Vineyard last Wednesday on behalf of the state of Florida, and was one of the two planes used in that effort.
After hours of delays, the plane finally took off Tuesday — only to head for Nashville and with no indication that any migrants were on board.
Before the change, the flight’s ultimate destination had appeared to be a Delaware airport near Biden’s Rehoboth Beach vacation home, according to data posted on the website FlightAware. That followed a pattern: Former president Barack Obama owns a vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard, an island in Massachusetts.
It’s not clear what happened and DeSantis’ office didn’t respond to questions.
The flight would have been the second instance of DeSantis using Florida taxpayer money to send migrants from a state other than his own — Texas — to the Northeast. The governor has said his efforts are intended as a message about the record-breaking numbers of migrants crossing the southern border — which he and other Republicans blame on Biden.
At a news conference Tuesday, DeSantis did not address rumors of the Delaware flight. He did, however, double down on his use of the charter flights, despite criticism from Florida Democrats that spending taxpayer money to transport migrants from Texas, rather than Florida, disregarded language approved in the state budget.
Paying for flights out of Texas was necessary, DeSantis suggested, because authorities are not seeing “mass movements” of migrants into Florida but rather a trickle — making it harder to recruit people for trips north in large numbers.
“If we just ignore the source, then you’re gonna have people trickling in[to Florida] 5, 10 a day, 20 a day,” DeSantis said. “I think that at the end of the day, what we’re doing is not the ultimate solution. I think it’s opening people’s eyes to the solution, which is, let’s have a secure border. Let’s have them remain in Mexico. Let’s take the cartels seriously.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, said the state had been preparing “for the possibility of migrants arriving in Delaware unannounced.”
The spokeswoman, Emily David Hershman, said state officials were working with community organizations “to make sure that migrants who arrive here have the support that they need” and were also coordinating with the federal government.
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By Tuesday afternoon, those officials had told volunteers to stand down, according to the Delaware News Journal.
The Delaware flight had been scheduled to travel Tuesday morning from a regional airport near Longview to Kelly Field in San Antonio, where the Martha’s Vineyard migrants boarded last week. Its flight plan then had it stopping in Crestview in the Florida Panhandle before touching down at Delaware Coastal Airport in the afternoon. The airport is about 40 minutes from Biden’s vacation home. There was little sign of activity at Kelly Field on Tuesday morning when Herald reporters visited.
Some migrants said they had been lured onto the Martha’s Vineyard flights with promises of jobs and aid that turned out to be false.
The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday it was opening an investigation into whether any of the migrants were victims of a crime. San Antonio is in Bexar County. During an appearance on CNN Tuesday, Sheriff Javier Salazar didn’t name DeSantis but said that “people that may have been associated with him or employed by him or contracted by him … may have broken the law.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the possible flight to Delaware “a political stunt” at a daily press briefing.
The migrants, who are seeking asylum and have legal status in the United States, “are fleeing persecution only to be used as a political pawn by the Florida governor,” Jean-Pierre said.
Asked to comment on DeSantis’ actions by reporters, Biden responded with an invitation to his home state: “He should come visit. We have a beautiful shoreline.”
Florida Democratic legislators have called on DeSantis to stop using state money for the relocations. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bi-partisan budget that authorized a $12 million program for removing “unauthorized aliens from this state.” But none of the migrants have set foot in Florida, except when their planes landed to refuel in the Panhandle on their way north.
At a Monday news conference, Florida House Democratic Leader Evan Jenne of Dania Beach said the flights were “about politics, plain and simple,” according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
State records show the Department of Transportation recently paid $1.565 million to a contractor with ties to the Panhandle for the relocation program.
It’s not yet clear what role Oregon-based Vertol Systems Company Inc., which has operations in Destin, played in flying the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Vertol Systems has also received roughly $25 million in federal contracts since 2004, mostly from the Department of Defense, according to a review of a U.S. spending database. Most of the contracts were for flight training, the database shows.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware on Tuesday called DeSantis’ decision to charter the flights “profoundly regrettable.”
Coons, a Democrat, declined to say if he thought the action was illegal.
“What they’ve done is certainly, I think, inhumane,” he said during an interview on MSNBC. “I’ll leave it to the sheriff in Texas who’s investigating this to conclude whether or not this was actually luring under false pretenses, the legal standard that amounts to human trafficking or kidnapping.”
DeSantis had previously talked about busing migrants to Delaware, although he seemed to drop the idea.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has bused migrants to Northeastern cities — including dropping some off at Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, D.C.
Abbott’s office told the Herald that Texas had sent more than 8,100 people to D.C., more than 2,600 to New York City and more than 675 to Chicago as of Monday.
By Sarah Blaskey, Nicholas Nehamas and Alex Roarty. This is a breaking news story and will be updated. Times/Herald Staff Writers Ana Ceballos, Mary Ellen Klas, Lawrence Mower and McClatchy DC Staff Writers Ben Wieder and Michael Wilner contributed to this report.