Politics | NPR

7 weeks from Election Day, migrants take center stage in political theater

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took something of a victory lap this weekend for his controversial flight sending migrants to the tony northeastern island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he arrives for a news conference on Sept. 7.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he arrives for a news conference on Sept. 7. Rebecca Blackwell | AP

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took something of a victory lap this weekend for his controversial flight sending migrants to the tony northeastern island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

"This is a crisis. It's now getting a little bit more attention," DeSantis said in Kansas during a leg of a tour organized by the conservative group Turning Point Action.

It's hardly a coincidence that DeSantis' stunt came days before his stops in Kansas and Wisconsin, where he campaigned for Republican candidates. His political ambitions are well known. He has become a conservative darling and a potential heir to the MAGA brand — a more disciplined version of former President Donald Trump, who continues to heavily suggest he will run again for president in 2024.

DeSantis is also up for reelection in Florida this year. And nothing fires up the Republican base quite like immigration. Trump used anti-immigrant rhetoric to vault himself to the top of GOP presidential contention in 2015.

"I think he got out of it what he intended: greater visibility for the issue," said Danny Diaz, a Republican strategist who ran former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential campaign. "And the reality is for about half the country, they entirely agree."

DeSantis hinted that this was his goal during his two stops over the weekend. He said that more people are paying attention to the issue now and that it's "on the ballot." Judging by the news coverage his move has received, it worked.

There is risk, however, in potentially alienating voters who see the move as unserious in not addressing the core issue and using migrants as political pawns. Migrants, who made the trip, said they felt "lied to," "deceived" and "used for a political purpose."

"We didn't think these people would be so cruel, so cold-blooded to do this to us," Elid Aguilar, 27, of Venezuela, told the San Antonio Report.

The move has echoes of the Reverse Freedom Rides of the 1960s, set up by white supremacists who persuaded poor Black families in the South to board buses to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

A Texas sheriff said Monday night he is opening a criminal investigation into what happened.

"What we understand is a Venezuelan migrant was paid a bird-dog fee to recruit 50 migrants who were then were lured — and I will use the word 'lured' under false pretenses — to staying in a hotel for a few days, then taken to an airplane where they were flown to Florida and then Martha's Vineyard under false pretenses of being offered jobs," said Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat. "For what we can gather, a little more than a photo op, a video op, and then they were left there."

The migrants had been at the Migrant Resource Center in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located.

Diaz said he views what DeSantis and other Republican governors are doing in sending migrants to more liberal-leaning states and municipalities as an effort to fire up the base.

"At this juncture, 50 days from an election, with people entrenched on either side and the vast majority of independents having a dim view of the economy and both sides seeking to energize their bases," Diaz said, "this is kind of par for the course on both sides."

Immigration has not been a principal voting issue in these midterm elections

Inflation has been the top concern for voters, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Abortion rights have been the top voting issue for Democrats. Since the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights have shaken up the electoral landscape and increased Democrats' enthusiasm.

Immigration, though, has been the No. 2 issue for Republicans, with more than 1 in 5 identifying it as their top issue. Just 1% of Democrats and 8% of independents said it was theirs.

"We need solutions and not theater," Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday. "The migrants are human beings, and we've got to treat them like human beings. They are being used as political pawns to get publicity."

Immigration has, however, been a simmering issue, particularly in border communities like the district that Cuellar represents in Texas. The U.S. on Monday crossed 2 million migrants arrested this year at the southern border, the most ever. Cuellar thinks more still needs to be done, including publicizing immigration enforcement.

"When was the last time you saw — you saw a picture or video of people going back?" he said. "You only see people coming in. And you've got to have words, along with action to enforce it."

Others think the Biden administration is getting a bad rap.

"This administration, I believe unfairly, is perceived as lax on border enforcement," former Obama Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Face the Nation.

He noted that the U.S. has been "sending back over 100,000 people a month" for the last two years. That comes out to more than 2 million people, he said.

Some of this, Johnson argued, is messaging.

"The lesson I learned managing this issue is, you've got to repeat yourself maybe 25 times before anybody will listen to you," he said. "You have to show that we are, in fact, sending people back."

The reactions to DeSantis' move have been divergent

Conservatives have predictably cheered it. They quite literally did so, giving DeSantis a standing ovation in Kansas when he mentioned it. They see the move as pointing out the liberal hypocrisy of creating "sanctuary city" and state statuses in places that are not dealing with the same influx that many border states are seeing.

Democrats and progressives point to local communities, state governments and nonprofits scrambling to help the migrants in Martha's Vineyard and in places like the District of Columbia, where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also sent busloads of migrants over the past several months.

That's far different from luring people onto a plane with fake brochures and promises of "sanctuary" and work in Boston when none had been secured.

Almost no one thinks the immigration system in the U.S. isn't broken. Americans do not see either political party as handling the issue perfectly.

But the Republican Party has undergone much more of a political evolution in just the last decade. The GOP has come a long way from having a president who pushed for immigration reform to one that used it as a political football.

Few, if any, Republicans left in Congress are seriously interested in fixing the immigration system to include a path to legalization for the millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

The closest Congress came in recent years was almost a decade ago when, in 2013, 68 senators, including 14 Republicans, voted for an immigration overhaul before conservatives in the House killed it.

More recent efforts have failed to progress, particularly with such a narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.

"We can make the borders safe and have a system of legal entry into the United States to work, put these people on the books, have them pay taxes, make sure we've done a background check," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on NBC's Meet the Press. "All of these things can be done. Are they controversial? You bet. Some of them are very controversial. But we know we need to do it. The United States is a nation of immigrants. I'm proud to be the son of an immigrant who came to this country. But I will tell you, if we're going to do it in this era, we can't wait another 30 years to get around to a solution."

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Transcript :

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There were rumors today that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was once again flying migrants out of Texas, this time to Delaware, which is President Biden's home state. The president even commented on it, saying DeSantis should perhaps visit the state sometime. Now, that flight never actually made it to Delaware, but it is the latest example of Republican governors trying to focus attention on immigration in controversial ways.

Here to talk about the politics of this is NPR's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro. Hey there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So let's just start off with the obvious question here - why are Governor DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott - who are both Republicans, we should note - sending migrants on these trips to more liberal blue states?

MONTANARO: Well, they feel like it's good politics for them. You know, they want to put a spotlight on immigration, get attention for it and make it a voting issue, particularly since migrant arrests at the southern U.S. border have now crossed 2 million for the first time. Here's DeSantis talking about his reasoning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: We are not a sanctuary state, and it's better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction. And yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.

(APPLAUSE)

MONTANARO: Immigration has long been a culture issue that fires up the conservative base. And these midterm elections are largely base elections. Democrats have seen their base get more enthusiastic about voting after the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. And this is an effort by Republicans to use something their base cares about so they go out to vote.

And DeSantis is up for reelection this year, and his political ambitions are no secret. He's been talked about quite a bit this year as a more disciplined version of former President Trump and a potential heir to that MAGA brand.

SUMMERS: OK. All of that may be true, but it sounds like this is something that could carry quite a risk of political backlash, right?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it certainly could be. You know, these are people's lives we're talking about, people who were apparently lied to with promises of jobs, given phony brochures. And it has echoes of the 1960s, when white supremacists persuaded poor Black families to board buses for Cape Cod thinking they were going to meet President Kennedy. Conservatives think DeSantis' and Abbott's efforts highlight liberal hypocrisy by sending them to wealthy liberal enclaves to show a not-in-my-backyard kind of attitude. But these communities have scrambled, actually, to try and help migrants. And the outrage in those places is more about these stunts than anything else.

The way DeSantis is funding these very expensive trips is controversial, too. I mean, the money came from $12 million the Florida legislature set aside, with funds that originally came from the federal COVID relief bill. And now a sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, where the migrants that went to Martha's Vineyard were lured from, has opened a criminal investigation. Here's Sheriff Javier Salazar, who's a Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAVIER SALAZAR: I believe that they were preyed upon. Somebody came from out of state, preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life, which is what they were absolutely looking for, with the knowledge that they were going to cling to whatever hope they could be offered.

MONTANARO: And by the way, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, said today he's glad Salazar is opening that investigation.

SUMMERS: And, Domenico, where is the White House in all of this?

MONTANARO: Well, President Biden spoke last week at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala. Here's some of his reaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Instead of working with us on solutions, Republicans are playing politics with human beings, using them as props. What they're doing is simply wrong. It's un-American. It's reckless. And we have a process in place to manage migrants at the border. We're working to make sure it's safe and orderly and humane.

MONTANARO: Of course, like we said, more than 2 million arrests now at the southern border this year, the most ever. And with these kinds of trips, the narrative of border crossers certainly has dominated more than talk of migrants being sent back to their home countries, which some border Democrats, by the way, think the administration should highlight more.

But all this talk of border crossings or people being sent back sort of misses the bigger policy point of addressing a comprehensive immigration overhaul. I mean, hardly anyone thinks that the immigration system here works well. There's a backlog of cases, millions of immigrants in the country illegally, millions more waiting to try and get into the country legally. And the politics around this is really a sign, frankly, of just how far the Republican Party has moved away from a moderate position on immigration to being one of a very hard line. And few, if any, congressional Republicans are open to a comprehensive overhaul of the system. It's quite a shift from where Republicans were...

SUMMERS: OK.

MONTANARO: ...During the George W. Bush era, for example.

SUMMERS: All right. NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.