Faith leaders across the country condemned Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s surprise relocation of nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants — emphasizing that the humane treatment of immigrants is more than a political issue.
At a virtual press conference Monday morning, Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Jewish community leaders called DeSantis’s move a political stunt that betrays the values of most religions, including his own.
Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and a Florida pastor, said his governor’s decision to load the migrants onto two planes to Martha’s Vineyard was “incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“This is not for us a partisan issue. This for us is a moral issue,” Salguero said. “What do we do with people who are seeking asylum, who are trying to better their lives, who are many times fleeing not just from political and economic upheaval, but from a very threat to their lives?”
The planes, chartered by DeSantis and carrying mostly young men as well as some families, landed on Martha’s Vineyard last week — the latest in a series of relocations organized by Republican governors, who say Democrats push for immigration reform but leave border-states to deal with its consequences.
Massachusetts officials were given about 20 minutes notice; the local shelter got a call as the migrants were stepping onto the runway.
The migrants said they were lured onto the flights with false promises of jobs and housing in Boston. When they landed on Martha’s Vineyard during off season for the island, the community reacted with an outpouring of support, scrambling to meet the migrants’ basic needs before the Baker government moved them to a temporary shelter on Cape Cod.
Salguero said his congregation has been pushing for bipartisan, “common sense” immigration reform for years. He called the country’s immigration system broken, but said “playing these games” is not a solution and called for compassion from lawmakers.
“We’re not asking from the government something we haven’t been doing ourselves,” Salguero said.
He and other faith leaders said there were serious problems with the country’s immigration system. They cited poor integration of migrants into American communities, an inability to address the root causes of immigration, and shortcomings of the asylum protocol and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), although they did not get into details about policy solutions.
Jim Wallis, chair in Faith and Justice at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, echoed Salguero’s words and called out “fake faith” appeals among the governors of Florida, Texas, and Arizona, who have all bused or flown migrants to liberal cities — and vacation islands.
“Governors [Greg] Abbott and DeSantis and [Doug] Ducey say they’re faithful Catholics. I looked it up,” Wallis said. “There’s nothing faithful — and certainly nothing Catholic — about using people, vulnerable people, as just political props.”
He called last week’s move a sin and said repentance means improving the immigration system, not just apologizing.
Barbara Weinstein, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, noted that Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish new year and a time of introspection and repentance for Jews, begins next week. She said the holiday emphasizes collective responsibility.
“Let me be clear, the failings of our immigration system are collective failings. They don’t belong to any one individual or any one state,” Weinstein said. “That said, individual actions are making a bad situation infinitely worse.”
Weinstein highlighted claims that migrants were lied to about their destination as a “grave moral and policy failing,” and said immigration reform needs to address the unique needs of refugees and asylum seekers.
She highlighted fights to end expulsions under Title 42 — a health policy allowing the federal government to restrict immigration to prevent the spread of infectious disease — first invoked under President Donald Trump in 2020 and now maintained by court order under President Biden, who said in a “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Adam Russell Taylor, president of Sojourners, said the nation’s asylum system has been “eroded and dismantled,” especially under the former president.
“In many ways, that system has been set up to fail,” Taylor said. “And instead of seeking to play these antics, these governors should be asking for more resources in order to strengthen that system.”
Mary Novak, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, which organized the conference, praised the work of charities and local residents to support relocated migrants in Martha’s Vineyard and beyond.
Novak said families and individuals flown to the island already made the “gut-wrenching decision” to leave everything behind. She said asylum is a human right.
“As so many of my colleagues have mentioned, our broken immigration system is a problem,” Novak said. “However, immigrants themselves are a gift.”