Since the spring, the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have been sending busloads of migrants north to Washington, New York, and Chicago. Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis upped the ante by sending two chartered flights unannounced to Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation haunt of former President Barack Obama and other wealthy liberals.

The governors’ campaign has supercharged the national debate over how to handle a migration crisis on the southwestern border, where the largest influx in decades is overwhelming law enforcement resources and further clogging an immigration and asylum processing system that was never designed to handle such numbers.

Why We Wrote This

Both sides agree the current system isn’t equipped to handle such a huge influx of migrants. But after decades of partisan finger-pointing, agreeing on solutions remains a significant challenge.

For years, Republicans and Democrats have failed to make the hard compromises necessary to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, while accusing each other of exploiting the issue for political gain. And although the upcoming elections may only intensify that dynamic, some experts remain hopeful that increasing frustration among voters could lead to a breakthrough.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former adviser with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who now works for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, says the public should push leaders to quit the blame game and work together toward solutions, telling them,“Don’t keep coming and telling me how upset I need to be at the other guy about it. Why don’t you fix it?”

The breaking point for Ricardo, a police officer in Venezuela, came when he refused to carry out orders targeting anti-government protesters – and found himself being targeted instead.

“I was a victim of harassment and persecution from other officials,” he says, adding that his unwillingness to engage in what he viewed as “crimes against humanity” put him and his family in danger.  

So in July, he set out on foot with three of his cousins for the United States. The monthlong journey took him through the perilous Darién Gap in Colombia, where he says he witnessed terrible assaults. In Mexico, he says, the police robbed him. 

Why We Wrote This

Both sides agree the current system isn’t equipped to handle such a huge influx of migrants. But after decades of partisan finger-pointing, agreeing on solutions remains a significant challenge.

When he reached the Texas border, he was quickly processed – and then put on a bus to Washington, D.C., by officials he says were wearing beige uniforms with the Texas flag on the shoulder. Like thousands of other migrants in recent months, Ricardo was dropped off at Union Station without money or belongings. And while he was quickly helped by a local aid organization – and is happy with his new surroundings – he realizes he is a pawn in Republican efforts to pressure the Biden administration. 

“From what I’ve heard, it’s like a war being waged by the governor of Texas” with migrants as collateral, he says. It seems like the Texas authorities have decided, “‘we’re going to throw these people over there so they can figure it out,’” adds Ricardo, who is identified by his first name only because he is working illegally.

The Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have been sending busloads of migrants like Ricardo north to Washington, New York, and Chicago since the spring. Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis upped the ante by sending two chartered flights unannounced to Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation haunt of former President Barack Obama and other wealthy liberals.

The governors’ campaign has supercharged the national debate over how to handle a migration crisis on the southwestern border, where the largest influx in decades is overwhelming law enforcement resources and further clogging an immigration and asylum processing system that was never designed to handle such numbers. For years, Republicans and Democrats have failed to make the hard compromises necessary to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, while accusing each other of exploiting the issue for political gain. And although the upcoming elections may only intensify that dynamic, some experts remain hopeful that increasing frustration among voters could lead to a breakthrough.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former adviser with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who now works for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, says the public should push leaders to work together toward solutions, telling them,“Don’t keep coming and telling me how upset I need to be at the other guy about it. Why don’t you fix it?”

The scope of the issue

So far, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey have sent nearly 10,000 migrants to Washington, including four busloads recently dropped off at Vice President Kamala Harris’ home. 

Asylum-seeking migrants wait at a new mobile en route processing unit, used by U.S. Border Patrol to rapidly process migrants on the border in downtown El Paso, Texas, Sept. 21, 2022.

That’s a token amount compared with what border states have absorbed since President Joe Biden took office. In the fiscal year that ends this month, Border Patrol has charted more than 2 million encounters with unauthorized immigrants or asylum-seekers, in between ports of entry – quadruple the annual average during the Trump administration. And the number of “known gotaways” – migrants identified by cameras or Border Patrol but not apprehended while crossing into the U.S. – has far outpaced last year’s total, with an estimated half-million crossing from October to July. 

The Biden administration has been quietly flying thousands of migrants from the border to other parts of the country for months, in part to unite unaccompanied minors with family members or sponsors. But the GOP busing strategy has pushed the nation to grapple anew with a border crisis that for most Americans exists only in headlines. It has spurred an outpouring of compassion and aid for migrants like Ricardo from nonprofits, faith organizations, and city and state officials. It has also prompted renewed criticism of the Biden administration’s inability or unwillingness to stem the flows, and the national security implications of that. 

By August, the Border Patrol had encountered 78 individuals on the terrorist watchlist trying to enter the country between ports of entry – five times more than during the previous fiscal year. Through June, the Del Rio sector alone had apprehended 1,651 criminal migrants. And at a time of record drug overdoses in the U.S., the Mexico border has become the main conduit for fentanyl: Of the 12,900 pounds seized so far this fiscal year, 95% of it was apprehended along the southwest border. 

Many crossing between ports of entry are seeking asylum. The U.S. is a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates that “subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay.” Due to backlogs, many asylum-seekers are released into U.S. society while they await adjudication, which can pose a challenge for law enforcement. This spring, unsealed court documents revealed that the FBI thwarted an alleged plot by an Iraqi asylum-seeker with ties to the Islamic State to assassinate former President George W. Bush.  

But the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Ms. Brown cautions against overstating the threat posed by the small number of suspected terrorists. “It serves no one to imagine that because some of those people might be a danger, then we should treat everybody as if they’re a danger,” she says.

Many people across the political spectrum would like to see Congress and the Biden administration lead by example. They just can’t agree on how. Congress has tried for decades to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would address concerns about border security, improve a backlogged system for processing immigration and asylum claims, and clarify the status of more than 10 million unauthorized immigrants who have established lives here.  

“The U.S., overwhelmingly so, has the resources, the skills, the knowledge, the capacity – you name it – to manage migration in a safe way with dignity,” says Anika Forrest, legislative manager for migration policy with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington. “Yet so often our policymakers treat migration as an occurrence that’s ‘besting’ us.” 

Many on the right argue that a broken immigration system with inadequate border enforcement is not compassionate because it incentivizes cartels and human traffickers. Last week, an Aug. 9 indictment was unsealed that showed federal officials had dismantled a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring that had been cramming unauthorized immigrants into semitrucks or wooden crates to bring them across the border. 

Critics of the administration say the influx of migrants could easily be curtailed within a few months by reinstating programs like Remain in Mexico and stepping up efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“All you have to do is reach on the shelf and pull out the Trump-era playbook on border security,” says Mark Morgan, former CBP commissioner under the Trump administration and a visiting fellow with the Heritage Foundation. “When you remove incentives and apply consequences, [illegal immigration] will go down.” 

Community organizations stepping in

More than 20 community organizations in the Washington area have gotten involved in helping the migrants bused here from Texas and Arizona, estimates Madhvi Bahl, an organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network. Usually, they get about half a day’s warning, but sometimes it’s as little as 20 minutes. 

Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette/AP

Migrants who arrived on a flight sent by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gather outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard, Sept. 14, 2022. A Texas sheriff on Sept. 19 opened an investigation into two flights of migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard from San Antonio.

Faith organizations are getting involved too, says Gary Sampliner, director of Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together and a member of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation, which along with Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and the Maqaame Ibrahim Islamic Center has been assisting arriving migrants and asylum-seekers.

“I think it’s actually helped D.C. become a more welcoming place,” says Elias Johnson, executive director of Congregation Action Network. “Each time we do something like this, we build our muscle, we build our infrastructure, and we build our cohesion as a community and our ability to welcome people.”

Likewise, on Martha’s Vineyard, the community rallied to help the arriving migrants. Polly Toomy, owner of Among the Flowers cafe, provided breakfast last Thursday and Friday for all of them. “Even people who are vacationing here were offering to come and help,” she says.

The migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard were moved to an Air Force base on nearby Cape Cod, where GOP Gov. Charlie Baker deployed National Guard troops to assist. The DeSantis administration told reporters that the migrants, who were picked up in Texas, were homeless and hungry and chose to board the flights knowing the destination. They were reportedly given meals and pamphlets listing the benefits available to refugees in Massachusetts, as outlined on the state website, although it’s not clear those benefits would apply in this case.  

On Tuesday, some of the migrants filed a class-action lawsuit claiming they were lured by $10 McDonald’s gift cards and hotel rooms, and then deceived into getting on the flights by false promises of housing and jobs in Boston or Washington. 

Back in Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser is bracing for more busloads. On Sept. 8, she declared a public emergency and announced a plan to create an Office of Migrant Services with an initial budget of $10 million. The measure, which creates a system separate from that serving homeless people, passed. Some activists have criticized it as rendering many migrants ineligible for services. 

“We’re not a border town,” Mayor Bowser told reporters Sept. 15, after migrants were dropped off at Vice President Harris’ home. “We don’t have an infrastructure to handle this type of and level of immigration to our city. But we’ll create a new normal here in our infrastructure and have a humane welcome for people.” 

Border towns overwhelmed

If the arrival of 10,000 migrants is straining Washington’s support services, says GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, just imagine having hundreds of thousands arrive. The Arizona city of Yuma, population 96,000, has seen 284,000 migrants arrive since last September –a 200% increase over the previous year.

“If the D.C. or New York mayors don’t like it, they ought to pick up the phone and call the Democrats who are in charge [of federal policy],” Senator Cruz told the Monitor last month. 

For their part, Democrats are calling on the GOP governors to show better leadership.  

“They should start behaving like governors and stop behaving like human traffickers,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, on Tuesday. 

Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, says his organization will be filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice and the district attorney in Bexar County, Texaswhere the Martha’s Vineyard flights originated, to determine whether the transport of migrants constituted criminal human trafficking. He blames Governors Abbott and DeSantis for stoking fear of the other for political gain. 

Yet as someone with relatives in Eagle Pass, Texas, who frequently see migrants walking around asking for help, he’s also acutely aware that border towns need more help from Washington. 

“This is an American problem, not a blue-state/red-state problem,” he says in a phone interview from Martha’s Vineyard, where he visited last Friday. “It’s going to require Biden to provide resources to those border communities that are disproportionately impacted.”

(Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 23 to better reflect the context of Theresa Cardinal Browns quote about increasing public pressure on leaders to find solutions.)

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