WASHINGTON — As two planes carrying several dozen migrants from the border landed on Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday, they were bringing more than vulnerable human beings fleeing devastated homelands in search of economic opportunity. They were also bringing the national culture wars to Massachusetts.
The migrants are just the latest group to be relocated by a red state governor — in this case, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — to bring their border security talking points to the national fore. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, both Republicans, have also transported migrants and asylum-seekers using state funds from the southern border to Democratic strongholds around the country in recent months as part of a larger political campaign.
Behind the made-for-Twitter political strategy, experts say, is a complicated picture, one that includes moral questions about manipulating human beings for political ends, the practical consequences for an already-broken national immigration system, and ever-worsening stalemates in Washington over long-sought reforms.
“First of all, playing with these people’s lives to score cheap political points is outrageous,” said John Sandweg, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Obama administration. “We obviously have a problem at the southern border. It’s a problem that existed under the Trump administration as well as under the Biden administration. . . . [But] this is reprehensible and disgusting.”
The border has seen a rapid increase in the number of migrants seeking to enter the United States in the past few years, driven in part by deteriorating conditions in Central and South America and other regions. The border governors and DeSantis have argued that their communities are overwhelmed by the influx, and that they’re simply sending migrants to cities that advertise their desire to welcome immigrants, regardless of their documentation status. Even before DeSantis’ Martha’s Vineyard move, Abbott and Ducey had sent thousands of migrants to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
“Every community in America should be sharing in the burdens, it shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states,” DeSantis said Thursday. “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.”
The planes to the Vineyard seemed to originate in San Antonio, with only brief stops in Florida. Migrants said they were recruited in San Antonio to fly to Boston. The governor’s office has not explained why DeSantis was involved in the transport of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts, and Abbott’s office said Texas was not involved but welcomed DeSantis to their cause.
But the tactics deployed by the Republican governors have created chaos and publicity, not addressed humanitarian needs.
“Instead of working with us on solutions, Republicans are playing politics with human beings, using them as props,” President Biden said Thursday in a speech before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. “What they’re doing is simply wrong, it’s un-American, it’s reckless.”
He noted the government has a process for handling migrants that is “humane,” and warned Republicans “should not interfere with that process by waging these political stunts.”
Typically, migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol who express a fear of returning to their home country or are not immediately deportable are processed and released locally — generally with a promise to later appear in immigration court. Homeland Security communicates with a network of shelters and support organizations that will then help direct the migrants either to a place to stay or to transportation options to reach friends or family already in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have crossed the border monthly of late. Sometimes, the federal government will fly migrants elsewhere in the country, as well, based on the availability of shelter networks or detention space.
But what governors are doing is different. It is true that many of the large cities where the governors are sending migrants have robust immigration support networks, and immigration courts there tend to have higher rates of granting asylum than those along the border do.
But when migrants reach those locations, they are often greeted only by TV news crews who’ve been tipped off in advance about the political stunt, instead of local officials and nonprofits that could help resettle them but get no meaningful advance notice. On Thursday, some of Abbott’s buses dropped migrants off outside the official vice president’s residence, an obscure neighborhood in D.C. without easy access to public transportation. Migrants who arrived on Martha’s Vineyard said they thought they were going to Boston, not an island with limited and expensive transportation options. Republicans then pointed to the complaints of chaos to mock Democrats, saying they were balking at a taste of life on the border.
“If Dems had to endure even a fraction of the suffering South Texas families have had to face, our immigration laws would be enforced,” tweeted Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has proposed legislation to redirect migrants from the border to be processed in blue states.
“The reality is for these communities, particularly in South Texas and some in Arizona, they have been in this situation of having to basically put together an entire system of dealing with tens of thousands of migrants a month for years. And so if bigger cities are now saying we don’t have the infrastructure, it’s like, wait a minute, there is a point to be made there,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former Bush administration DHS official and immigration expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank.
But she and other experts said that if the goal was to actually share the burden of supporting migrants or to influence policy debates in Washington, the tactics wouldn’t be so focused on publicity rather than genuine human need.
“That’s the question . . . is it making a difference, or is it just putting vulnerable people in a more vulnerable situation?” Brown said.
Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren decried the GOP as “desperate.”
“Republicans are losing badly in the run-up to the November elections,” Warren said. “They’ve tied themselves to unpopular policies . . . they are hoping they can change the subject, and they’re looking for a way to do it without any regard about either what works for our nation or how we treat human beings.”
Texas has undertaken its efforts at significant taxpayer cost. The state has already spent more than $12 million on transporting migrants to liberal strongholds, according to The Texas Tribune. A spokesperson for DeSantis said the state was tapping into a $12 million “relocation program.”
Both Sandweg and Brown doubted the governors were running afoul of federal law, depending on what migrants were told about where they were going. If trips were offered on a voluntary basis to immigrants who had already been released from federal custody, it be would hard to make a case that the governors were interfering with federal law or trafficking migrants, they said. If migrants were being misled or coerced, that could pose legal problems.
And the situation could significantly complicate matters for an already dysfunctional immigration court system designed to hear migrants’ cases and decide who can stay. Immigration courts could have trouble tracking down migrants who’ve been relocated, potentially resulting in missed court cases.
In a statement, a Homeland Security spokesperson said authorities are working to process migrants at the border, many of whom are immediately expelled from the United States under public health rules. But failing to coordinate with local governments and nonprofits in transporting migrants “is irresponsible and creates unsafe conditions for vulnerable migrants as well as the receiving jurisdictions.”
Legal organizations in Massachusetts were scrambling Thursday to offer assistance to the migrants who landed, and to assess whether there may be bigger litigation to pursue, especially if migrants were misled about their destination. California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat from a pro-immigrant state, on Thursday wrote the Justice Department asking it to open an investigation.
“This is a very unique situation where apparently government officials from Florida are responsible for inducing people to travel to a different state and that may have significant ramifications on their ability to pursue immigration relief,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for the Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston. “What has happened raises a host of very troubling legal issues.”
And Sellstrom said locals coming together to welcome migrants doesn’t change the moral questions about the stunt in the first place, one in which people were treated as “political pawns.”
“The point is not to get people the services they need, to allow them to travel where they want to travel, whether it’s to be reunited with family or to access services that they need,” Sellstrom said. “The entire point of this charade is to make political points.”
Globe staff writers Amanda Kaufman, Carlos Munoz, Alexander Thompson, and Samantha Gross contributed to this report.