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For five months, Gov. Greg Abbott bused migrants into Democrat-run cities to draw attention to the number of people arriving at the Texas border.
He started with Washington, DC, then expanded bus service to New York and Chicago. At least 11,000 migrants have been removed from the state, apparently voluntarily.
But an attempt by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week to use the same tactic took the issue to another level when the state flew a plane to Texas and allegedly lured migrants onto the flights by offering jobs, housing and services as well Boston promised a free trip to Texas and then abandoned these migrants at Martha’s Vineyard, an island resort about 100 miles away. Three of those migrants have now sued DeSantis in federal court.
In a way, Abbott and DeSantis are following a familiar playbook: find ways to put immigration front and center in election season to capitalize on populist backlash. But some say the transports have taken the country’s political discourse to a new low, using migrants as props in political theater rather than just the subject of rhetorical attacks.
“To me, that’s just really blatant manipulation of people. It speaks to our values,” said Jim Harrington, retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who has worked on immigration issues since 1973. “The idea that you could play with people the way he did.”
Abbott’s office said Texas plays no role in migrant entry into Massachusetts. But there has been similar backlash for his recent push to send migrants in buses to Vice President Kamala Harris’ home in Washington — a stunt Harris likely never saw, given that the vice president’s residence is located on an 80-acre scientific military site, the Naval Observatory.
“She’s the border tsarina, and we felt like if she doesn’t come down to see the border, if President Biden doesn’t come down and see the border, we’re going to make sure they see it firsthand,” Abbott said. “There’s more where that came from.”
In November, Abbott is seeking a third term and DeSantis is seeking a second. Politicians have often used immigrants in election campaigns. In 1994, California Gov. Pete Wilson ran ads showing migrants crossing the border during his re-election campaign. More recently, Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential bid began by denouncing Mexican immigrants as “criminals,” “drug dealers,” and “rapists.” Abbott himself escalated his attacks on “Sanctuary Cities” in 2017, the year before his first re-election campaign.
But while these efforts portrayed and debated the immigrants, the use of actual migrants has itself troubled scholars and observers, who see it as just the latest in a series of collapsing norms undermining American democracy.
Donald F. Kettl, professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, said the recent transports represent a “dramatic escalation in the use of immigrants as a political tool and political symbol.
“One of the things that has happened for sure is that immigrants as people — the idea that they have needs or problems that they’re trying to escape from, and their aspirations to make a new home for themselves in the United States — have been affected by the idea of creating a mega symbol and using them as game pieces that move,” said Kettl. “It’s a really horrible way of treating people and it’s certainly an attempt to push aside people’s needs to try and score political points.”
Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M professor who studies political rhetoric, said bringing migrants into the jurisdiction of a political opponent follows a rhetorical tactic called “reification,” in which people are treated as physical objects whose feelings don’t count.
“The plan doesn’t care about the migrants and their welfare and welfare,” she said. “It’s, ‘How can I use these migrants to score a political point against my opponent?'”
Abbott and DeSantis have said they want to force Democratic officials, starting with President Joe Biden, to act. But Mercieca said running the programs without proposing solutions belies it.
“This is not about political solutions, but about creating political spectacle. It’s about creating dramatic events or “pseudo-events” that need to be covered,” she said. “You have to stick it on the other side. You have to show that you are strong. You must achieve victory.”
These “pseudo-events” aim to control the narrative as both governors seek re-election and an opportunity to raise their profile, possibly in anticipation of a presidential nomination in 2024, Kettl said.
The polls show why that could be beneficial for Abbott. During the summer, much of the political discourse in Texas focused on the Uvalde school shooting and the overthrow of Roe v. Calf. A recent University of Texas/Texas Policy Project poll found that more Texans trust Abbott’s 2022 challenger Beto O’Rourke on abortion issues — and they’re evenly divided on gun violence. In contrast, Abbott has a 12 percentage point lead on border security and immigration.
But Mercieca also noticed a shift in how far politicians are willing to go to get their point across and how much the public is willing to tolerate.
“A stunt like Abbott’s or DeSantis’ would have made no sense 10 years ago, 15 years ago and 20 years ago,” she said. “That would not have resonated with a more general audience. But today’s audience loves that.”
That’s partly because cable news has become bipartisan, pressuring politicians to take dramatic and even extreme measures to garner attention.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “They radicalized audiences, who in turn radicalized them.”
The migration movement has also drawn comparisons to painful parts of US history. As news of the Florida flights spread across Massachusetts, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library released a tweet comparing the effort to the “Reverse Freedom Rides” of the 1960s.
“In order to embarrass northern liberals and humiliate blacks, southern White Citizens Councils launched what they call ‘Reverse Freedom Rides’, giving blacks one-way tickets to northern cities with false promises of jobs, housing and a better life,” according to the library account tweeted.
But those jobs and opportunities didn’t exist, leaving black travelers stranded from their homes instead.
This week, PBS aired documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest project, The United States and the Holocaust, which chronicled America’s refusal to change restrictive immigration quotas to help refugees even as millions of people fled Europe before and during the Holocaust.
Harrington said the use of immigrants to score political points shows a new “callousness” in the way Texans view immigrants. Just 21 years ago, a Republican-led Texas legislature passed legislation allowing undocumented youth who grew up in the state to pay state tuition at public universities. After the escalation in migrant movements this month, no Republican elected official has spoken out, nor have any major business or civilian leaders.
“A lot of people sit around and talk about it and bemoan it, but where is the leadership that has helped shape and shape our human response as a democracy? Where is it?” he said. “We’re just so broken.”
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