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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Governors of Florida and Texas intensify fight over immigration

Lunch is set out for migrants at St. Andrew’s Church on Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, Mass. on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.

By Will Sennott, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Eileen Sullivan, Michael D. Shear and Patricia Mazzei

Migrants sent on planes and buses to the liberal bastions of Martha’s Vineyard and Washington, D.C., found themselves on Thursday at the center of a political spectacle staged by the Republican governors of Florida and Texas to protest the large numbers of immigrants being allowed into the country at the southern border.

The decisions by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas to send two busloads of people to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence Thursday, and by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to send two planeloads to the moneyed Massachusetts retreat Wednesday — roughly 150 migrants in all — were their most conspicuous attempts yet to provoke outrage over record arrivals at the border, with scores of migrants inserted into the political fight.

President Joe Biden promised to turn back his predecessor’s border policies, calling them inhumane and ineffective. But court challenges, internal disagreements inside the White House and large numbers of migrants — including tens of thousands of families — have made that difficult. Many of the recent arrivals come from countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua, with chilly diplomatic relations preventing the United States from sending them home.

On Thursday, DeSantis defended chartering private planes to drop mostly Venezuelan migrants on the wealthy and largely white island of Martha’s Vineyard, a place that is unused to handling an influx of South Americans with myriad needs. The move comes after several months during which Abbott and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a fellow Republican, have sent frequent busloads of migrants to Washington and New York, straining resources in those cities. Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington declared a public emergency last week in response to the influx.

“All those people in D.C. and New York were beating their chest when Trump was president, saying they were so proud to be sanctuary jurisdictions,” DeSantis told reporters in the Florida Panhandle. “The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day are brought to their front door, they all go berserk.”

He did not shed light on who rounded up the migrants and got them on the planes to Martha’s Vineyard or how. Several of the migrants, who spent the night at a church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, said Thursday that after being released from Border Patrol custody in Texas, they had been approached by a woman named “Perla” who offered them seats on planes to Massachusetts but did not say they would be landing on a remote island. This year, the Florida Legislature set aside $12 million to transport migrants out of Florida.

Abbott took responsibility for directing buses to the Naval Observatory in Washington, which serves as Harris’ residence. In a statement, he said the more than 100 migrants were from Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela.

Harris “claims our border is ‘secure’ and denies the crisis,” Abbott wrote on Twitter. “We’re sending migrants to her backyard to call on the Biden administration to do its job and secure the border.”

The two governors, who could someday face off as presidential primary rivals, do not appear to have coordinated their transports. Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, said in a statement that the Texas governor’s office had previous conversations with DeSantis and his team about busing migrants out of Texas. But Abbott’s staff was “not involved in these initial planes to Martha’s Vineyard,” she said, though she added that “we appreciate the support in responding to this national crisis and helping Texans.”

In Washington, city officials, who by now are used to receiving groups of migrants from Texas, responded to help the newest arrivals. A Fox News camera was positioned near the residence to film the drop-off, officials said. Members of the Biden White House were particularly frustrated that Fox News had apparently been alerted, but not the city government or nonprofit organizers waiting for any potential migrants at Union Station.

The Biden administration viewed the tactic as a political stunt by Republicans determined to harness anti-immigrant sentiment before the congressional midterm elections. But it is unclear what action, if any, the White House can take to stop the drop-offs of migrants, many of whom plan to seek asylum in the United States and are guaranteed that right.

Since Biden took office, his administration has allowed in more than 1 million migrants, many of whom will wait months or years for hearings because of legal and procedural backlogs. More than 1 million were similarly admitted to the country on a temporary basis over a two-year stretch of the Trump administration, according to data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute; these migrants are distinct from the many who enter the country undetected.

Administration officials have said it will take time to unwind harsh policies aimed at keeping migrants out that were put in place by former President Donald Trump. It took Biden more than a year to eliminate a Trump-era program that forced asylum-seekers to wait in squalid camps in Mexico, in part because of court rulings.

But disagreements among Biden’s immigration advisers also slowed progress as aides battled one another. The debates have prompted many of those key advisers to leave the White House, even as significant issues remain unresolved.

Legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, which Biden introduced on his first day as president, failed to gain traction in Congress and was shelved as the administration struggled to advance the rest of its domestic agenda with tiny majorities in both chambers.

The Homeland Security Department has been pressing the White House for months to adopt a plan that would allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transport immigrants released at the southern border to the cities where they wish to wait for their immigration court proceedings, such as Miami.

The number of daily crossings along the southern border have increased over recent weeks, a typical pattern as the weather begins to cool. Over the past few days, there have been about 8,700 crossings a day, which is historically high. The El Paso and Del Rio regions in Texas have been seeing a bulk of the crossings. About 2,400 Venezuelans have been crossing in El Paso daily, the official said.

The government cannot send Venezuelans back to their country because of its lack of relations with the country. Instead, they are being released to one day face removal proceedings in immigration court. Many are given surveillance devices so that officials can track their whereabouts while they wait their turn in the clogged immigration system.

The United Nations said recently that the number of Venezuelans who had fled their country had hit approximately 6.8 million, tying with Ukraine’s exodus as the largest migration in the world. This migration is the result of an economic, social and democratic crisis that began in 2013, which economists have called the worst outside of war in decades.

The scramble to help the migrants on Martha’s Vineyard was such that on Thursday, local officials deployed students from a high school Advanced Placement Spanish class to assist as translators.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, said his state “has many resources for assisting individuals that arrive in Massachusetts with varying immigration statuses and needs and is working with all partners involved to make sure those resources are available.”

His administration, he added, was exploring setting up “temporary shelter and humanitarian services” at a Cape Cod military base.

As far back as December, DeSantis had mentioned the prospect of migrants arriving in Martha’s Vineyard to force a crackdown on illegal immigration. On Thursday, he said his administration was happy to facilitate migrants’ transport to “greener pastures.”

“Every community in America should be sharing in the burdens,” he said. “It shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states.”

The people gathered for his official event in Niceville, Florida, cheered.

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