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The Cruelty and Dishonesty of the DeSantis Immigration Stunt

Especially galling: The men and women he used as props are in the U.S. legally.
September 20, 2022
The Cruelty and Dishonesty of the DeSantis Immigration Stunt
An underage undocumented immigrant (center) is loaded onto a bus to be transported off Marthas Vineyard with dozens of other undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Dominic Chavez for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Of all the excuses he could muster, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s explanation that he flew some fifty asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard last week because “we are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction” might be the smarmiest. Indeed, most of the asylees were Venezuelans seeking sanctuary of a sort the United States has long provided those fleeing Communist regimes. DeSantis’s action scored him points among the Trumpian base of the GOP nationally, but it may backfire with his own state’s Venezuelan-origin population, who skewed Republican in 2020. The stunt seems particularly ironic given Republican Spanish-language ads in the last election that directly appealed to Venezuelan- and Cuban-American voters by depicting Joe Biden as an ideological comrade of Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, and Fidel Castro and Donald Trump as a champion of freedom.

This is a point that must be emphasized: The Venezuelans whom DeSantis flew to Martha’s Vineyard were in the United States seeking asylum. They followed U.S. law. They are not “illegal aliens.”

Most of Florida’s growing Venezuelan community—which included more than 75,000 eligible voters in 2018—fled their homeland when its Communist-sympathizing leaders Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro destroyed the country’s petroleum-dependent economy and its democratic institutions. Some 6 million people have fled Venezuela, most to neighboring countries, in the wake of government crackdowns, inflation that exceeds 1,000 percent, and government-induced poverty that is the worst in Latin America. Donald Trump even contemplated U.S. military intervention against Maduro to end the crisis, according to his former national security advisor John Bolton.

DeSantis surely knows this, yet he cynically lured Venezuelans who made the 3,000-mile trip through ten countries seeking refuge in the United States onto chartered planes with promises of jobs and free housing. Some may have been handed a brochure, deceptively designed to look like an official publication of the Massachusetts government and dishonestly detailing benefits to refugees that are unavailable to asylum seekers.

Worst of all, these asylum seekers weren’t even in Florida but hundreds of miles away in San Antonio, Texas. According to interviews with several people who arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, a mysterious blond woman who called herself “Perla” approached Venezuelans staying at a temporary migrant shelter in San Antonio offering a plane trip to Boston, where she claimed they’d get all the help they needed to find work and shelter. Instead, the asylees landed on the tiny island, where residents scrambled to provide them food, clothing, and beds in a local church. (As of Monday night, a Texas sheriff is reportedly investigating DeSantis for luring the immigrants onto the plane to Massachusetts under “false pretenses.”)

Thanks to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker—a popular Republican problem-solver and not a Trump wannabe—the migrants are now safely at Joint Base Cape Cod, where the governor’s office promised “accommodation, clothing and hygiene kits, nutrition, needs assessment, and access to health care, mental health, and crisis counseling services.” They will also receive legal assistance, which is critical since all of them likely have scheduled interviews to press their asylum claims.

DeSantis isn’t alone in exploiting the tragedy playing out daily at our southern border. The governors of Texas and Arizona have also invested millions in shipping out migrants to other states in publicity-seeking stunts. And the results aren’t always bad. A New York Times story Sunday detailed the sojourn of one Venezuelan who landed at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station after his harrowing journey from Caracas to Texas. The former small business owner found a job quickly, is temporarily living in a well-run shelter, and is saving up for a used car and a place of his own, all while sending money home to support his 7-year-old child. He’s also learning English on a phone app, since he knows it is the key to success in his new country.

With the United States’ desperate need for more workers, asylees could be a boon to local economies, provided they are given more expeditious approval to work. But our current immigration system provides roadblocks. Under current rules, an applicant for asylum must wait 150 days to apply for legal authorization to work and the applicant’s asylum petition must have been filed at least 180 days prior. Many asylum seekers end up in the underground economy while they wait, which provides them no protection from exploitation and may deprive government of payroll taxes as well as jeopardizing their future legal status.

There has to be a better way. Unfortunately, anti-immigration animus drives most Republican politicians today. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 8 in 10 Republican and Republican-leaning voters see deporting illegal immigrants as a top priority, and GOP governors like DeSantis, Greg Abbott (Texas), and Doug Ducey (Arizona) invoke this antipathy even when the people they are targeting—like the Venezuelan asylees DeSantis used as props—aren’t actually illegally in the country.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, persons fleeing persecution or who fear persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, have the right to apply for asylum in the United States—a process that can only be initiated once on U.S. soil. Over the last two years, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have arrived at our southern border to claim asylum. The process is long, arduous, and difficult, and most who claim asylum will not be granted protection. But until we modify current law—and Republicans have been most responsible for standing in the way of doing so—those who play by our rules shouldn’t be vilified.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the National Immigration Forum and served in the Reagan White House as director of public liaison. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.