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OPINION

The migrant crisis is a problem for Democrats and Republicans are happy to exploit it

They want Massachusetts to become a laboratory for what happens when liberal ideology runs up against the social and economic realities of the country’s broken immigration system.

What Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida did in Massachusetts over a year ago shows a visceral understanding of the dynamics of the immigration issue, along with a willingness to exploit it in a cruel and possibly illegal way.Elise Amendola

On the surface, the Beacon Hill impasse over a $3.1 billion spending plan that allocates $250 million for the state’s emergency shelter system was the product of a classic institutional fight between House and Senate Democrats — which was exploited successfully, for once, by a small group of Republican lawmakers.

On Tuesday, the House and Senate passed the spending bill and Governor Maura Healey quickly signed it into law. But for Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida the drama that preceded that action still counts as “mission accomplished.” By sending a plane full of migrants to Massachusetts in September 2022, DeSantis, who is also a Republican presidential candidate, planted a seed that has blossomed into a real identity crisis — one that has been playing out just as President Biden is due in Boston Tuesday for a fundraiser cohosted by singer James Taylor.

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A little over a year ago, DeSantis put Florida taxpayer money behind a diabolical scheme to round up 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers in Texas, fly them to Martha’s Vineyard, and give Massachusetts Democrats a taste of what it means to have to deal with migrants in desperate need of food and shelter. State and local officials handled that relatively small challenge with grace and efficiency. Over time, however, both grace and efficiency have dwindled. Thousands of migrants have come to the only state in the country with a law that requires it to provide shelter for families that need it, leading Healey to declare a state of emergency.

To deal with the influx, Healey recently announced plans to cap the number of families the state would accommodate in shelters. Meanwhile, it took so much time for House and Senate leaders to agree on the best way to appropriate more funding for the state’s shelter system that the Legislature is now in informal session. Flexing clout they have only because of the rules that guide informal sessions, Republican lawmakers started demanding a formal session with a roll call vote to put every lawmaker on the record.

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Why? Because when it comes to allocating state resources to help migrants, Republicans believe they have a winning issue. As with other blue states like New York and California, they want Massachusetts to become a laboratory for what happens when liberal ideology runs up against the social and economic realities of the country’s broken immigration system.

Polling indicates the Massachusetts public is ambivalent on this issue. In a poll conducted in August by the MassINC Polling Group, immigration moved into fourth place as one of the most important issues facing Massachusetts — an unusually high ranking attributed to headlines about the large number of migrants coming to the state.

“We’re being overwhelmed with the outlay needed to cover benefits/services to illegal aliens who are being dropped here, and it’s wreaking havoc with real estate taxes and apartment rents,” a poll respondent told Rich Parr, the senior research director at the MassINC Polling Group. Still, according to a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll conducted in October during the week Healey said she would begin limiting how many families the state will place in its emergency shelter system, 63 percent of those surveyed said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the state’s right-to-shelter law. Those surveyed also said it was the responsibility of President Biden, congressional Republicans, and the state Legislature to resolve the matter.

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Massachusetts Republicans, meanwhile, have seized upon the migrant crisis as a rare issue that can attract voters to their side. On WCVB’s “On the Record,” Amy Carnevale, the chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said she viewed it as a key motivator in a special state Senate election that was won by Republican Peter Durant. As a House member and state Senate candidate, Durant pushed to abolish or modify the state’s right-to-shelter law. Republicans don’t have enough votes on Beacon Hill to do that. But through procedural delay tactics they managed to shine a spotlight on it — one that also highlights the broader problem for Democrats in the 2024 presidential contest.

It’s easy to support the right-to-shelter law — which I do — and harder to say there should be no limit on how much money goes to migrants. Approving the supplementary budget, with its $250 million for shelters, does not solve the long-term dilemma for Democratic lawmakers. Where will the state find shelter space for everyone and how much will it cost?

DeSantis has proven to be an awkward and inept presidential candidate. The latest polling numbers from New Hampshire put him in fifth place. But if you connect the dots, what DeSantis did in Massachusetts over a year ago shows a visceral understanding of the dynamics of the immigration issue, along with a willingness to exploit it in a cruel and possibly illegal way.

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So far, from Washington to Beacon Hill, and across the country, Democrats don’t have an answer for it.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misattributed a quote that was given by a poll respondent.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her @joan_vennochi.