Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott amped up a monthslong political ploy by Republican governors to ship asylum seekers from border states to Democratic-leaning states in the northeast and California. Abbott sent two buses of migrants from Texas to Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence. DeSantis chartered planes to carry approximately 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, MA. Though Abbott’s policy offers migrants the choice to decline a free bus ticket to the northeast, DeSantis appears to have lured migrants to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses. Three of those migrants, along with Alianza Americas, a network of migrant-led organizations, filed a putative class action lawsuit against DeSantis in the federal district court in Massachusetts last week, alleging 12 counts including illegal seizure, false arrest, false imprisonment, fraud, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and violations of procedural and substantive due process and the equal protection clause. In San Antonio, Sheriff Javier Salazar announced a criminal investigation into DeSantis’s actions – and leading experts have noted that the allegations of illegality “are serious ones which merit close attention.”
A Page Out of the Global Authoritarian Playbook
These cruel stunts are merely the latest in an ongoing campaign by Republican governors to ship migrants north. Abbott declared last week that he had sent 8,000 migrants to Washington DC; 2,500 to New York City; and 600 to Chicago since beginning his busing policy this spring. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has bused nearly 2,000 migrants to Washington DC since May, at an estimated cost of $4 million. The idea of shipping migrants north was raised as early as 2018 by President Donald Trump, who attempted to pressure officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into sending migrants to sanctuary cities. ICE officials refused, deeming such a response inappropriate given the financial, legal, and public relations risks.
These acts of political theater are sadly not original. The use of asylum seekers as political pawns is a tactic drawn directly from the global playbook of xenophobic politics. By one count, politicians worldwide have deployed similar schemes at least 81 times since the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was drafted in 1951. In a notable recent example, in the fall of 2021 Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko lured several thousand migrants, including many Kurds from Iraq and Syria and some Afghans, to Belarus, under the false pretense that he would enable them to access the European Union. As the weather turned cold, Lukashenko bused these migrants from Minsk to the western border where Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland pushed them back into Belarus using tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Lukashenko’s motivation for this political ploy was to undermine European leaders who refused to recognize him as the winner of the 2020 presidential elections and sanctioned him for suppressing pro-democracy protests. Just a few months earlier, Moroccan officials intentionally limited policing of the border with Ceuta, a Spanish enclave. In two days, more than 10,000 migrants entered Ceuta through Morocco. The Moroccan government’s weaponization of migrants was a political protest against Spain’s hospitalization of rebel group leader Brahim Ghali, who had an outstanding Moroccan arrest warrant. Examples abound of leaders of transit countries leveraging migrants in order to further their political and economic goals.
One Dehumanizing Strategy Begets Another
The effectiveness of these strategies depends on both the dehumanization of migrants by the regimes that weaponize them and the susceptibility of politicians and the public in migrant-receiving nations to disproportionate fears of migrants from the Global South. In the case of Abbott and DeSantis, most of the migrants on recent bus journeys and flights have come from Venezuela. The U.S. State Department reports that Venezuelans face “serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation” and serious violence and threats of violence against indigenous people, LGBTQ+ folks, journalists, and political opponents. In other words, many are fleeing serious harms that render them eligible for asylum status; indeed, that is likely why they have been released into the interior of the country rather than immediately deported or detained. (Similarly dire political situations face many of those fleeing north from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.) As a wealthy nation with a labor shortage, why has the United States’ reception of these asylum seekers escaping dire political and economic situations been so ungenerous?
The answer lies in another, related feat of political theater: the construction of a migration crisis at the southern border. An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted in mid-August found that “over half of American adults believe it is either completely or somewhat true that the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border.” Yet even at the relatively high levels of arrivals in FY 2022, the number of migrants apprehended through August is equivalent to 0.6 percent of the U.S. population. Ironically, the stunts by Abbott, DeSantis, and Ducey demonstrate that we are also a wealthy nation capable of providing migrants with safe transit throughout the interior. Despite that ample capacity, and the fact that over 70% of Americans “say taking in civilian refugees from countries where people are trying to escape violence and war should be a very or somewhat important goal for immigration policy,” according to an August poll by the Pew Research Center, politicians have managed to leverage xenophobia to fabricate a border crisis.
The human suffering at the border is all too real; the fabrication lies in the political creation of that suffering through the implementation of obstacles to accessing the asylum process and other lawful migration statuses. From the externalization of the U.S. southern border by urging Mexican authorities to apprehend migrants at their southern border, to the spread of carrier sanctions that penalize airline companies for transporting asylum seekers without proper entry visas, safe and lawful means of passage for asylum seekers and labor migrants alike have been all but eliminated. Instead, migrants fleeing serious violence and oppression in Venezuela and elsewhere must undertake treacherous journeys, often paying thousands of dollars – ten times the cost of airfare – to risk their lives in unsafe forms of transit. Many are extorted and violently assaulted as they travel north. Once they arrive – if they do – at the U.S. southern border, asylum seekers and other migrants without entry visas find few options for entry, with the Title 42 policy that enables speedy expulsions under the ostensible guise of public health still in place with limited exceptions. Many must wait in dangerous tent camps at the border – the perfect photo opportunity for politicians aiming to capitalize on xenophobic claims of an “invasion” at the southern border.
In other words, the tent camps at the border are the original cruel political stunt that must be undone to defuse the power of politicians who seek to weaponize migrants. The weaponization stunt plays on public fears of migration, and politicians’ corollary fears of unfavorable polling. Its success depends on the dehumanization of migrants who seek protection from a range of serious harms and/or seek to fill labor needs in the U.S. market.
In the current political climate, it is hard to even envision an alternate path in which those seeking entry to the United States might receive a visa that enables them to fly safely and inexpensively to their destination, where they could benefit from the support of family and friends while awaiting asylum hearings. Others might be processed for a labor visa before they depart their home country, fulfilling labor needs through lawful rather than undocumented migration. The irony of the Abbott, DeSantis, and Ducey stunts is that they demonstrate that this path forward is a real possibility, if only it were made available in a way that respected the autonomy of migrants – in a way that treated them like human beings rather than political weapons.