Column: The ugly historical roots of the GOP’s sadistic migrant transports

A man at a lectern with eight people behind him
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: protecting his state from immigrant hordes — in Texas.
(Greg Lovett / Associated Press)

Just about the only thing that one can say about the migrant transports sponsored by Republican governors in the South is that the picture is sure to get uglier as more facts emerge.

GOP governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona have been sponsoring bus and plane transfers of migrants from their states to northern jurisdictions including New York; Washington, D.C.; and (notoriously) the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

When southern border state governors or the governor of Florida spring busloads or plane loads of newly arrived migrants onto other states, they are contravening the very point of the union created by the U.S. Constitution.

— Heidi Li Feldman, Georgetown Law


Let’s briefly recap much of what already has been reported.

The right-wing press has called the passengers “illegal immigrants,” but in many if not most cases they’re asylum-seekers who have completed the initial step in their processing by getting a hearing scheduled, getting fingerprinted and background checks. While awaiting their hearings, they are in the U.S. legally.

Multiple reports indicate that some were defrauded into boarding the transports with promises of jobs and immigrant services and misled about their destinations. To achieve his ends, DeSantis and his minions apparently employed a shadowy character who identified herself as “Perla” and promised the Texas migrants jobs and payments in Massachusetts before she disappeared into the mist. In any event, no one has yet found her.

The transports made it impossible for some to attend their scheduled hearings or other procedures; federal officials have suspended their processing until their relocations are worked out.

“They’re not illegal aliens,” immigration attorney Taylor Levy told the immigration law podcast “Redirect.” “They‘ve been processed, they’re in the system, they have upcoming court dates.”

DeSantis in particular may have misappropriated the state funds he acknowledged spending on the flights to Martha’s Vineyard. The state budget allocated the $12-million fund at issue to facilitating “the transfer of unauthorized aliens out of the state.”

The flights, however, originated in San Antonio, Texas. DeSantis defended the expenditure, lamely, by asserting that the migrants would probably have ended up in Florida eventually.

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The lessons from this practice are highly instructive. They provide a window into how the GOP will govern if it attains control over the federal government: with ruthless heartlessness crossing the line to sadism, directed at the most vulnerable men, women and children falling within their grip.


They will offer no substantive solutions to any problems facing America, only performative schemes that make those problems worse.

The Republican base seems to think this situation is hilarious. They’re reveling in what they see as the discomfiture of authorities at the destinations forced to scramble to bring care and services to the passengers. Never mind that the authorities are scrambling because they’re trying to bring care and services to innocent people used as political pawns.

There’s more, much more. But it’s proper first to examine the historical antecedents to these transports.

They include the “Reverse Freedom Rides” of the 1960s, when White Citizens’ Councils in the South placed Black families on buses and sent them north, a pushback against the Freedom Riders who were coming south to help Black residents register to vote. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library helpfully posted a 1963 newspaper article describing the experience of a Black family from Shreveport, La., sent by bus to Trenton, N.J.

When it comes to lying to vulnerable people to persuade them to take actions contrary to their interests, that’s a technique perfected by Nazi Germany. The Nazis persuaded Jews to enter the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau by telling them the facilities were for delousing.

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What’s even more evocative of Nazi practice in the migrant transports is the GOP’s effort to dehumanize its victims. DeSantis and other Republicans have deprived the passengers of their humanity by treating them as mere cargo.

“These are human beings,” Levy said. “They should not be talked about like they’re being ‘shipped.‘”

The transports seem to have stretched the news media’s critical faculties to the breaking point. It’s being given a purely political treatment as a battle between the major parties in the conventional “Republicans say this, but Democrats say that” model; CBS tweeted that the transports are what “critics are calling a political stunt,” and called the transports “controversial.”

This is a remarkably pusillanimous way of framing the case. The transports have been flatly condemned by immigration experts, legal authorities and ordinary citizens, not merely Democrats. They aren’t a “stunt” when the lives of innocent humans are at stake.

Defenders of the transports assert that DeSantis, Abbott and Ducey are merely trying in good faith to underscore the failure of the Democratic administration to come to grips with the immigration issue.

We know this is a lie. How can we tell? Simply by examining how Republicans handled the immigration issue when it was entirely within their power to address it. In 2017-2018, for example, the GOP controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.

What did the Republicans do about immigration then? They did squat. A bill crafted as a compromise within the Republican majorities failed spectacularly in the House, and immigration reform was dead.

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In 2006, Republicans controlled the House and Senate and George W. Bush reigned in the White House. That May, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which would have improved border security with new fencing while implementing a guest worker policy, among other reforms. The House refused even to take up the measure, and it died.

In 2013, when Democrats controlled the Senate and the White House and Republicans the House, a bipartisan group of Senators called the “gang of eight” — four from each party — crafted a compromise immigration measure that passed the Senate.

Then one of the “gang” members, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), abandoned his own measure, thereby cementing his stature as that rarest of God’s creatures, a human invertebrate. The measure died in the Republican-controlled House.

All this history seems to have disappeared down the memory hole. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went on Fox News on Friday to “commend” Gov. Abbott for sending immigrants north and calling on GOP governors to send 500,000 more. Cruz has been in the Senate since 2013. What has he done in that time to address the issue? To ask the question is to answer it.

Nothing keeps the Republican governors from addressing what they call an immigration crisis in humanitarian ways, rather than acting as sociopaths.

They have sent buses and planes north without making significant efforts to notify authorities at the destinations that the passengers are coming. The two planes sent by DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard arrived unannounced.

Washington, D.C., has created an extensive infrastructure of immigrant services. Instead of instructing bus drivers to drop their passengers at locations where they could access those services, Abbott’s people instructed them to drop them off in front of the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris, on the edge of suburbia.

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Boston too has well-developed systems for serving immigrants. The city’s immigration court, which adjudicates matters such as asylum applications, is the fifth busiest in the country.

Air DeSantis, however, dropped its passengers without warning on Martha’s Vineyard, which is miles from Boston and inaccessible except by ferry or air. The passengers were given brochures appearing to be official guides to Massachusetts immigrant services, but which were filled with what experts say is inaccurate or misleading information.

Immigration authorities say that assertions in the brochures that immigrants in Massachusetts can receive “up to 8 months of cash assistance” and other benefits don’t apply to migrants that have begun the asylum process.

Notwithstanding the southern governors’ assertions that their states are alone in bearing the burden of migrants at the border, the truth is that only two of the 10 busiest immigration courts are in southern border states — those in Dallas and San Francisco. (DeSantis’ claim that his state is a border state is undermined by the fact that he had to go clear over to Texas to find passengers for his migrant flights.)

Part of a brochure given to migrants on a flight from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard includes what experts say are lies and misrepresentatations about what the passengers could expect upon landing.
(Judd Legum,

The legal implications of the governors’ policies remain to be worked out. Whether they have engaged in illegal trafficking is unclear — the question may depend on the passengers’ legal status and how they were persuaded to board buses and planes. But it’s apparent that the governors’ transports have interfered with some of the passengers’ immigration processing by carrying them too far from their homes to meet their court schedules.

The apparent lawlessness of the southern governors extends beyond their treatment of the passengers. “There are various legal mechanisms for ensuring that states coordinate and cooperate with each other,” Heidi Li Feldman, an expert on immigration practices at Georgetown Law, observed via Twitter. These are provided for by the U.S. Constitution, in the form of interstate compacts — essentially treaties between stated that must be blessed by Congress.

Two hundred compacts exist. Some bind all 50 states to recognize reciprocal rights of their citizens, say by recognizing each others’ drivers licenses or adoption rules or educational credentials. Some involve only two or three states. Westerners benefit from the seven-state compact reached in 1922 over apportionment of the waters of the Colorado River, which set the ground rules for construction of Hoover Dam.

“When southern border state governors or the governor of Florida spring busloads or plane loads of newly arrived migrants onto other states,” Feldman observes, “they are contravening the very point of the union created by the U.S. Constitution. ... They are trying, quite literally, to ambush the governments of their sister states.”

There’s nothing amusing about this behavior. Nothing in it will lead to sensible, much less sensitive, reforms of immigration policies. Nothing about it makes its perpetrators look like human beings.

To quote the most famous rebuke to a hypocritical politician of our time—Joseph Welch’s scolding of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) at the Army-McCarthy hearings on June 9, 1954, we put it to each of these governors: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy responded to Welch’s question with a long, embarrassed silence. That’s the only answer that DeSantis, Abbott and Ducey could possibly have to offer.