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Our Opinion: DeSantis' exploitation of migrants deserves condemnation — and a real policy alternative to deter such stunts

In a perfect world, U.S. governors would not stoop to exploiting human beings for partisan showmanship, and our federal lawmakers would put differences aside to craft immigration reform that balances America’s economy, security and tradition as a beacon of hope for those yearning to breathe free.

Surprise is key part of migrant travel from Florida, Texas

Clearly, we’re far from that perfect world. In a humanitarian fiasco disguised as political scandal, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week shadily arranged for scores of Venezuelan migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. Southern border to be flown to the small island community of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.

Gov. DeSantis and those who applaud his disgraceful move should acknowledge that this was not a legitimate attempt to highlight ways to improve our immigration system — it’s just realpolitik reveling in an extra dose of misery for already desperate people. It’s worth noting that the migrants on whom Gov. DeSantis inflicted this scheme were not even in his state but in Texas, where the migrants turned themselves in to apply for asylum — which is not illegal, despite those who would wish to tar all these folks with that term. It also purposefully strained that legal process. There is nowhere on Martha’s Vineyard to continue the asylum application process, and many of the migrants flown there had appointments with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Antonio. The migrants have since been moved to a military base on Cape Cod.

It is shameful that Gov. DeSantis used some extraordinarily vulnerable people as political pawns when what’s necessary is a real-world policy solution to the issue that he and others are exploiting. The Biden administration must model a more decent and productive reaction to migrant influxes by creating a mechanism that automatically distributes asylum-seekers in a way that’s reasonable and regionally equitable.

And, as many immigration reform advocates would point out, if there are people risking their lives just for a chance to work hard in this country while countless employers are still looking to fill empty jobs, there would seem to be an opportunity in this crisis. An expanded work permit program could offer dignity and earned respite to those seeking safe haven while simultaneously presenting an economic solution that many of our communities are seeking.

America sees itself as a nation of immigrants, a shining city on a hill made brighter by those who have come here looking to build a new life. In the 19th century, Ellis Island was the arrival point for many of our forebears — those tired, poor, huddled masses who sought refuge in the opportunity to work hard and provide for their families. Now, our southern border is that arrival point for many. That includes people seeking to escape regimes our government has deemed despotic — a common theme formative to our nation’s fabric, from those fleeing Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the 20th century to those fleeing Venezuela now.

All of us who agitate for America to keep room in its heart for these folks should continue doing so in the face of those in power who would substitute cruelty for real policy solutions to gain hard-liner clout on the issue of immigration. We should also listen to our fellow citizens who live in the (mostly red) states along the southern border and Gulf of Mexico that disproportionately face the disruptions that inevitably come with migration waves. Gov. DeSantis’ move was equally harmful and cynical. For him, putting a finger in the eye of liberal opponents is worth tarnishing the ethos inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Given the warm reception in right-wing media, expect more Republican governors to pursue similarly despicable ploys.

This can and should be nipped in the bud. Of course there are bigger policy solutions that need consideration as well. We need more asylum courts and judges in play to process surges in claims, many of which likely have legitimacy — whether it’s people fleeing unimaginable violence in Central America or political repression in Venezuela and elsewhere. We are also long overdue for an overhaul to our entire immigration system, which is clearly in need of a 21st-century update. While those broader goals seem out of reach amid increasing polarization, a relatively simple federal migrant relocation program that is humane, compassionate, realistic and regionally equitable would be considerably more doable in the short term.

Hopefully, such an alternative to the status quo would undercut opportunists like Gov. DeSantis who have shown they’re willing to engage in what is essentially a human-trafficking scheme for political gain.

To condemn such shameless tactics and hold their perpetrators accountable is necessary but not sufficient. We also must explore policy alternatives that make it less likely to reoccur, for the sake of our nation’s soul.

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