Image credit: “A general View of the US-Mexico Border Wall”, Luis Boza, Shutterstock
The big story in the news over the past couple of days is that Florida governor Ron DeSantis chartered two planes to fly about 50 migrants, most of whom were from Venezuela, to Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts.
The story is still developing. Although DeSantis is the governor of Florida, the migrants appear to have come from Texas, and it currently appears that they were lured onto the planes—paid for with taxpayer money—with the false promise of work and housing in New York City or Boston. In addition, there are allegations from a lawyer working with the migrants that officials from the Department of Homeland Security falsified information about the migrants to set them up for automatic deportation. As I write this, it is not clear what their actual status is: have they applied for asylum and been processed, or are they undocumented immigrants?
As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo says, none of it adds up.
None of it, that is, except the politics. DeSantis apparently dispatched the migrants with a videographer to take images of them arriving, entirely unexpectedly, on the upscale island, presumably in an attempt to present the image that Democratic areas can’t handle immigrants (in fact, more than 12 percent of the island’s 17,000 full-time residents were born in foreign countries, and 22 percent of the residents are non-white). But the residents of the island greeted the migrants; found beds, food, and medical care; and worked with authorities to move them back to the mainland where there are support services and housing. In the meantime, there are questions about the legality of DeSantis chartering planes to move migrants from state to state.
There are two big stories behind DeSantis’s move.
First is that the Republicans are on the ropes over the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision and the capture of the party by its MAGA wing. That slide into radical extremism means the party is contracting, but it is not clear at all that base voters will show up in the midterms without former president Trump on the ballot.
Rallying voters with threats of “aliens” swamping traditional society is a common tactic of right-wing politicians; it was the central argument that brought Hungary’s Viktor Orbán into his current authoritarian position. Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona have been bussing migrants to Washington—about 10,000 of them—saying they would bring the immigrant issue to the doorsteps of Democrats. Now DeSantis is in on the trick.
Immigrants are nothing new to northern cities, of course. The U.S. is in a period of high immigration. Currently, 15 percent of the inhabitants of Washington, D.C., are foreign born, only slightly less than the 16.8 percent of the population of Texas that is foreign born. About 29 percent of the inhabitants of Boston come from outside U.S. borders, as do 36 percent of the inhabitants of New York City.
In the lead-up to the midterms, Republicans have tried to distract from their unpopular stands on abortion, contraception, marriage equality, and so on, by hammering on the idea that the Democrats have created “open borders”; that criminal immigrants are bringing in huge amounts of drugs, especially fentanyl; and that Biden is secretly flying undocumented immigrants into Republican states in the middle of the night. Beginning in July, they began to insist that the country is being “invaded.”
In fact, the border is not “open.” Fences, surveillance technology, and about 20,000 Border Patrol agents make the border more secure than it has ever been. That means apprehensions of undocumented migrants are up, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recording more than 3 million encounters at the border since January 2021. Those high numbers reflect people stopped from coming in and are artificially inflated because many who are stopped try again. CBP estimates that about 27 percent of those stopped at the border are repeat apprehensions.
Although much fentanyl is being stopped, some is indeed coming in, but through official ports of entry in large trucks or cars, not on individual migrants, who statistically are far less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. And the federal government is not secretly flying anyone anywhere (although, ironically, DeSantis is); U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sometimes moves migrants between detention centers, and CBP transfers unaccompanied children to the Department of Health and Human Services. These flights have been going on for years.
The second story is the history of American immigration, which is far more complicated and interesting than the current news stories suggest.
Mexican immigration is nothing new; our western agribusinesses were built on migrant labor of Mexicans, Japanese, and poor whites, among others, in the late 19th century. From the time the current border was set in 1848 until the 1930s, people moved back and forth across it without restrictions. But in 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, putting a cap on Latin American immigration for the first time. The cap was low: just 20,000, although 50,000 workers were coming annually.
After 1965, workers continued to come as they always had, and to be employed, as always. But now their presence was illegal. In 1986, Congress tried to fix the problem by offering amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans who were living in the U.S. and by cracking down on employers who hired undocumented workers. But rather than ending the problem of undocumented workers, the new law exacerbated it by beginning the process of militarizing the border. Until then, migrants into the United States had been offset by an equal number leaving at the end of the season. Once the border became heavily guarded, Mexican migrants refused to take the chance of leaving.
Then, in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) flooded Mexico with U.S. corn and drove Mexican farmers to find work in the American Southeast. This immigration boom had passed by 2007, when the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States began to decline as more Mexicans left the U.S. than came.
In 2013 a large majority of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, backed a bill to fix the disconnect caused by the 1965 law. In 2013, with a bipartisan vote of 68–32, the Senate passed a bill giving a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, who would have to meet security requirements. It required employers to verify that they were hiring legal workers. It created a visa system for unskilled workers, and it got rid of preference for family migration in favor of skill-based migration. And it strengthened border security. It would have passed the House, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring it up for a vote, aware that the issue of immigration would rally Republican voters.
But most of the immigrants coming over the southern border now are not Mexican migrants.
Beginning around 2014, people began to flee “warlike levels of violence” in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, coming to the U.S. for asylum. This is legal, although most come illegally, taking their chances with smugglers who collect fees to protect migrants on the Mexican side of the border and to get them into the U.S.
The Obama administration tried to deter migrants by expanding the detention of families, and it made significant investments in Central America in an attempt to stabilize the region by expanding economic development and promoting security. The Trump administration emphasized deterrence. It cut off support to Central American countries, worked with authoritarians to try to stop regional gangs, drastically limited the number of refugees the U.S. would admit, and—infamously—deliberately separated children from their parents to deter would-be asylum seekers.
The number of migrants to the U.S. dropped throughout Trump’s years in office. The Trump administration gutted immigration staff and facilities and then cut off immigration during the pandemic under Title 42, a public health order.
The Biden administration coincided with the easing of the pandemic and catastrophic storms in Central America, leading migration to jump, but the administration continued to turn migrants back under Title 42 and resumed working with Central American countries to stem the violence that is sparking people to flee. (In nine months, the Trump administration expelled more than 400,000 people under Title 42; in Biden’s first 18 months, his administration expelled 1.7 million people.)
The Biden administration sought to end Title 42 last May, but a lawsuit by Republican states led a federal judge in Louisiana to keep the policy in place. People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to apply for asylum even under Title 42.
There are a lot of moving pieces in the immigration debate: migrants need safety, the U.S. needs workers, our immigrant-processing systems are understaffed, and our laws are outdated. They need real solutions, not political stunts.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This story first appeared in a slightly different form on September 16, 2022, on the author’s Substack, Letters from an American.