Right-wing immigration policy has been depraved from the moment Donald Trump instituted the Muslim travel ban as one of his first acts in office. From there, it has spiraled into increasingly brutal and inhumane policy shifts, from family separation and child cages at the border to pledges to enact mass deportation on flimsy procedural grounds. One proposed initiative from the Trump White House’s suite of xenophobic backlash policies that proved a bridge too far, however, was a plan from ghoulish immigration policy adviser Stephen Miller to flood designated asylum cities with undocumented immigrants in a bid to overstretch their social safety nets and exact petty political revenge for dissenting from the right’s new policy consensus.
It makes a grim sort of sense, in the saga of the American right’s general descent into overt fascist cruelty, that a measure too unthinkable even for the Trump White House is now a plaything of aspiring Trump successors. Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott has been sending busloads of recently arrived undocumented immigrants to Washington, D.C., without any support or further direction, prompting D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to repeatedly petition (without success) for support from the National Guard. And now Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has followed suit, with a high-profile stunt to relocate 48 Texas-based asylum seekers from Venezuela to Martha’s Vineyard, a summer resort getaway for many big-ticket liberal political donors. (It speaks volumes about the routinization of mendacious cruelty on the right that DeSantis bragged about this nihilistic stunt to a similarly well-heeled conclave of right-wing donors.)
But this latest Republican foray into the performative politics of state terror calls to mind the immortal line from the cynical film noir classic The Sweet Smell of Success, when on-the-make publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) upbraids his columnist-mentor J.J. Huynsecker (Burt Lancaster) with the undeniable taunt, “You’ve got such contempt for people, it makes you stupid.”
DeSantis was clearly targeting Martha’s Vineyard as a bastion of elite liberal smugness that, had things gone to plan, would have promptly collapsed into chaos and panic with the immigrant influx. The crude calculus here, following the playbook pioneered by Abbott, was to give the liberal resort set a dose of the hard realities of an under-policed border overseen by a putatively amnesty-friendly liberal mindset.
But Martha’s Vineyard didn’t fall into despair and squalor. Instead, the community welcomed the Venezuelan newcomers and lavished them with material support—so much so that the local Edgartown police department tweeted out a statement requesting that local residents stop donating to the shelter housing the immigrants, since it was now swamped. “DeSantis seems so desperate to believe that people are going to be mad about this,” says Boston immigration attorney Matt Cameron. He notes that the flood of local support doesn’t just reflect Vineyard largesse; many Massachusetts employers are contending with increased demand for labor in a tight market. “If other states keep sending immigrants, we absolutely would welcome all they have to send—they’re importing people we want; we have real shortages here.”
So much for the economic stupidity of DeSantis’s stunt. When you look closely at the underlying politics here, it’s bewildering. “I’ve worked with a lot of Castro refugees, in my practice,” Cameron observes, “and the people we are working with in Venezuela, they’re also asylum seekers from a left government, basically. Many of them are pretty much the equivalent of the Tea Party in Venezuela. If they spoke English and were white, the Republicans would be fine with them.… You know, DeSantis has this regular commemoration for victims of communism down in Florida, so if his supporters there understood these were those same refugees he’s forced into Martha’s Vineyard, you just have to ask, ‘What is the right doing here?’”
Of course, what the right is doing is the same thing it did before the 2018 midterms, when a bevy of journalists and politicians summoned up a raft of alarmist reports of an “immigrant caravan” poised to overrun the country’s southern border, and prior to the 2014 voting cycle, when Republicans stoked a free-floating uproar over the specter of allegedly immigrant-spread Ebola. With the GOP unexpectedly on the defensive in many congressional races, thanks to both the impudently fascist legacy of Trump himself and the fallout from the Dobbs ruling, it has resorted to the same tried-and-true tactic to energize its right-wing base: invoking a vision of non-white immigrant hordes seizing white America’s birthright prosperity.
Still, a Florida governor tapping into public money to dispatch two private planes to Texas to spirit away Venezuelan asylum seekers who are already in the country legally scrambles a lot of the intended messaging. Immigrant advocates in Florida observe that DeSantis is looking beyond potential convulsions within his own state’s demographic communities as he trains his ambitions on the White House. “DeSantis is now running for president,” says Thomas Kennedy, spokesperson with the Florida Immigration Coalition. “This guy is overconfident—he thinks he going to win. So he’s willing to take some hits for the sake of his ambitions. In a 2024 presidential debate, he can claim, ‘I was more hardline on immigration than anyone else on this stage.’”
Some leaders in the Florida immigrant community are apparently making much the same calculation, Kennedy says. “We just did a press conference with Venezuelan leaders opposing this. But the reality is there’s a huge section of the Venezuelan American community, and the Cuban American community, that’s cared more about access, and doesn’t want to piss off this vindictive, petty, and mean man.”
At the same time, broader trends in state politics suggest that this latest DeSantis cruelty could backfire. “It plays well with the Trump base, but I think the miscalculation here is for Venezuelan and other immigrant communities,” says Samuel Vilchez Santiago, a former asylum seeker from Venezuela who now works as the Florida state director of the American Business Immigration Coalition. “I think that they’re asking, ‘How the heck does this benefit me?’ These people were not even in Florida, and we spent $700,000, about $12,000 a person, to send them—not even from the border, but in San Antonio—we spent all that money to send them to Martha’s Vineyard?”
Santiago agrees that the Martha Vineyard détournement is also a reckless act of political hubris on DeSantis’s part. “He’s taking our votes for granted. But that’s not what I’m now seeing in the community. What I’m seeing is really for the first time the Venezuelan community is outraged, from both parties, against this action from a government official.” For the past three years, Santiago adds, polling among Florida’s Venezuelan immigrants “shows that if politicians don’t support a pathway to citizenship, people are increasingly not going to vote for them.”
Then there’s the legal stupidity of the DeSantis predation campaign. As Nation columnist Elie Mystal has argued, initial evidence suggests that the overtures DeSantis’s apparatchik made in Texas could qualify as the basis for a federal kidnapping case. Cameron, citing a brochure handed out to the immigrants falsely promising refugee benefits to asylum seekers, suggests a trafficking charge could be in play. In distributing the brochures, the DeSantis crew was leaving a paper trail. “You have a system that grants UNT visas for trafficking victims. So obviously, if anyone was to be charged with a crime for this, [these immigrants] would all be eligible for visas that way, if it’s demonstrated you’re a victim of trafficking. The promise of jobs was enough, but if you’re also promising expedited work papers—if you as an immigrant hear you have a job for them in Massachusetts—that’s a pretty straightforward case.”
Got that? DeSantis, by going to such extraordinary lengths to dramatize the alleged threat of runaway undocumented immigration, may actually end up expediting this group of asylum seekers’ own eventual path to citizenship. It’s an irony worth savoring—but alas, we don’t live in a political system that incentivizes irony over rank stupidity. After the first wave of blowback crested at the end of last week, DeSantis announced that he’s prepared to do it all again, and still has people dispatched to Texas to continue seeking out Venezuelan arrivals. “What we’re trying to do is profile, ‘OK, who do you think is trying to get to Florida?’ You’re trying to identify who’s most likely to come.’“