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Ultraconservative Politicians Exploit Immigrants for Political Theater

Updated: Sep 17, 2022

On the afternoon of September 14, 2022, fifty immigrants arrived by plane on the small tourist island of Martha's Vineyard, off of Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. The flight, which originated in the state of Texas, was paid for by Ron DeSantis, the far right republican Governor of Florida.

The people disembarking from the plane, all apparently from Venezuela, were bewildered. They had been contacted by a woman named "Perla" in San Antonio, TX, and told that they would be flown to a city, not a small island community, where jobs and expedited work authorization awaited them. This was not true; they were defrauded and exploited by the Governor of Florida and his agents.

As the JFK Library reminded us, this is horrifically reminiscent of the so-called "reverse freedom rides," racist political theater of the 1960's, when southern segregationist politicians opposed to the Civil Rights Act sent black families living in the south to the Cape in Massachusetts. They were told they would be met personally by President Kennedy, and that jobs and a better life awaited them. They too had been exploited for political theater, uprooting their lives and children for a promise that never materialized. It is probably not a coincidence that former President Obama has a home on Martha's Vineyard. For people like DeSantis, Abbott and the segregationists of the 1960s, the fact their political theater comes at the expense of other human beings is inconsequential to them -- they dehumanize and demonize and exploit anyone likely to gain them political followers. And use taxpayer money to fund it.

Many media outlets got the story wrong, engaging in lazy journalism or intentionally using the rhetoric conservatives have pushed in order to instrumentalize immigration for their campaigns. To be clear, asylum seekers are not "illegals." Not only is no one "illegal," but both domestic and international law provide the opportunity for people with a well-founded fear of persecution to pursue asylum. If these people were in San Antonio, TX, they had likely already passed their credible fear interviews, indicating that the federal government had already found them to have a non-frivolous potential asylum claim. Other media outlets claimed that "sanctuary states refuse to enforce immigration laws." This is also wrong. The Supreme Court has been very clear (in the cases like AZ v TX), that immigration enforcement is the job of the federal government. Sanctuary cities and states have intentionally not opted into federal immigration programs like 287(g), which essentially allows them to deputize local law enforcement to act as immigration enforcers. And they've refused for good reason - it is very hard to solve crimes when your residents fear coming forward as witnesses and reporting crime. Disaggregating the two is smart practice.

The ugly, exploitative acts of DeSantis and Abbott have backfired in multiple respects. The places to which they sent people welcomed the immigrants. The residents of Martha's Vineyard fed and housed them, even releasing school children for the day to play with the immigrant children and use their Spanish to help ease their fears. It also backfired because the Governors and their agents likely committed crimes and civil infractions while engaging in this political theater. Among the possible crimes under both state and federal law are likely fraud and possibly: racketeering (organized crime across state lines), unauthorized practice of law (giving legal advice to people who are not your clients), kidnapping (if the consent was falsely given and they were not free to leave), human trafficking (if adjudicators are willing to view their exploitation for the Governor's political gain as exploitation), or smuggling (if this scheme started outside of the US).

Not only did this shameful exploitation of human beings backfire because those implicated in the scheme could face state or criminal charges, but because they may have just handed these same immigrants the ability to receive U-visas - reserved for victims of crimes committed against them in the US.

The biggest story here however is the heartwarming reception these people have received from the communities unwittingly receiving them. Sanctuary jurisdictions understand that that immigrants are a net gain for their communities. Even conservative think tanks like the CATO Institute agree. But more than that -- kindness to the stranger, giving sanctuary to those in need, is the right thing to do.

If you look very closely, you can almost see the America we used to be proud of; our nation of immigrants.

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