Human language

When migrants become political pawns

The calcified cruelty, malignant politics and dubious legality of Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida’s decisions to transport dozens of migrants in Texas to unsuspecting places in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., reiterate the point – often made in recent years – that the only check on the behavior of the current Republican Party is the limits of its own imagination. Most of the migrants are said to have come from Venezuela, a country so shaken by discord that around 20% of its population has been displaced. One man said he arrived after spending three months traveling through several countries. Many people said they were offered accommodation and free flights to cities where they thought they had guaranteed work.

Instead, they were sent on two chartered planes, arranged at DeSantis’ request, and unceremoniously released on Martha’s Vineyard, the resort island just off the coast of Massachusetts that DeSantis called a “sanctuary jurisdiction.” . Others were bused to Washington, DC, and left outside the US Naval Observatory, where Vice President Kamala Harris lives, as part of a program that Abbott, who is seeking a third mandate, adopted this spring. Texas bussed more than eight thousand migrants to Washington, New York and Chicago, costing the state more than twelve million dollars. Arizona, under Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, also sent more than a thousand migrants to the nation’s capital. The three governors plan to continue the transports.

Implicit in their actions is the idea that northern liberal attitudes about immigration are underpinned by the fact that the places where northern liberals live are not inundated with people entering the country undocumented. Governor DeSantis seemed to be trying to troll people whose magnanimity, he seemed to believe, is inversely proportional to how much a given issue impacts their own lives. Indeed, much of the right-wing discussion of the immigration crisis tends to cast it as a “border crisis”, mistakenly suggesting both that the sole driver of the number of people arriving is the porosity of the border south and that this issue falls squarely on the shoulders of the southern and southwestern states. DeSantis frequently complained of an excessive burden on border states and expressed concern that migrants arriving in those states really wanted to move to his. As reported on NPR, he said, “What we’re trying to do is profile, ‘OK, who do you think is trying to get to Florida?’ What does not seem to have been taken into account in this reflection is that before the last crackdowns, Florida, although not a border state, nevertheless had a long tradition of welcoming certain migrants – on condition that they flee the Cuba of Fidel Castro.

Carried by the audacity of recent stunts, some commentators have played the game agile message. A headline in New York Job ran: “WITH MARTHA’S VINEYARD MELTDOWN, MAYBE DEMS WILL ULTIMATELY UNDERSTANDING ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION ISSUES.” On Fox News, Tucker Carlson derided Martha’s Vineyard as a white haven full of people hyperventilated by the sudden presence of so many brown people. (A conservative online meme showed a woman calling the police to report a Hispanic man who was not holding a leaf blower.) Carlson’s colleague, Jesse Watters, asked Mike Pompeo: “I mean, everyone you know on the left has a house there. Do you think they will embrace their new neighbors? Pompeo, who served as Donald Trump’s secretary of state, said, “You know, they’re all sanctuary cities until they’re in their sanctuary.”

The island is, of course, not the monochromatic enclave it claims to be. There was a black presence there for over a century before the Obamas arrived. There has been a local NAACP chapter on Martha’s Vineyard since 1963. Edward Brooke, who in 1966 became the first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction (and the first elected by popular vote) has lived part-time on the island , which he called his “spiritual home”. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and novelist Dorothy West all vacationed here.

DeSantis could have sent the migrants to any community in the country large enough to support an airstrip. He chose Martha’s Vineyard because of its reputation for both prosperity and leftist politics. The entire line of attack echoed Irving Kristol’s adage that a neocon is just a liberal assaulted by reality. Yet it is important to note that the generally liberal sanctuary cities targeted did not adopt their policies in a vacuum. According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than two hundred thousand undocumented migrants live in Massachusetts. The other traditionally liberal strongholds of New York and California have undocumented populations of around eight hundred and thirty-five thousand and over two million, respectively. Sanctuary cities like Boston, New York and Los Angeles arrived at these posts not in the absence of migrants but in their presence.

The cynical expectations were contrasted by what really happened on Martha’s Vineyard once the migrants were discovered. Restaurants provided free food, beds were set up in a church, and a mass in Spanish was held. Residents donated bedding, toiletries and candies. Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston has filed a class action lawsuit against DeSantis and other Florida state officials, alleging the migrants were victims of a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme”. (A Texas County sheriff is also investigating whether the migrants could be considered victims of crimes, and last week Jason Pizzo, a Democratic senator representing part of Miami-Dade County, sued to block other flights.)

This wave of support has, predictably, been underestimated among immigration hawks. It bears recalling that not so long ago, voices from the reactionary right were delivering flimsy defenses of the Trump-era decision to remove children from their parents on the southern border and detain them, without clear plan to reunite families. This situation has also led to the surreptitious transport of migrants to remote places in the country without knowing where they were being taken. The cruelty is constant, but it also, unwittingly, highlights another fact: DeSantis, Abbott and those who approve of their actions believe liberals will see things differently once they metaphorically step into the shoes of others. But, to make the point, they’re fine with abusing more people who have already walked miles – hundreds of them – in theirs. ♦