Why Ron DeSantis Thinks Weaponizing Asylum Seekers Is a Winning Strategy

Last week, about fifty Latin American asylum seekers were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard on two flights arranged by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis. A number of people aboard the planes had told reporters that a woman who identified herself as “Perla” had approached them at a shelter outside San Antonio and promised that, after being flown to Boston, they would receive work opportunities and housing assistance. It was, by all accounts, a callous political stunt, but a similar practice has been under way throughout the summer, with thousands of people sent by bus from Texas and Arizona to Washington, D.C., and New York. The Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, has threatened legal action against Texas, as has a group of lawyers in Massachusetts. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, has asked the Justice Department to consider kidnapping charges in the case of the people sent to Martha’s Vineyard. President Joe Biden has accused Republican governors of “playing politics with human beings, using them as props.” Speaking at a gala for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, he said, “What they’re doing is simply wrong.”

As refugee experiences go, though, being put on a bus or a plane and ending up thousands of miles from a place one might have wanted to go, or thought one was going, is ordinary. When people fleeing violence and disaster seek protection from national governments and international organizations, they learn that beggars at the citizenship table cannot be choosers. A national government may decide to house them, for an undetermined period of time, in a hotel, a dormitory, or a detention facility; they may have limited freedom of movement or none; they may not be allowed to seek work to provide for themselves and their families. An international body such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees may recognize a person who has had to flee their country as a refugee and place their file in a giant pool of applications from which another country, some years down the road, may choose the person for resettlement. The U.N.H.C.R. currently views twenty-seven million people in different parts of the world as refugees; twice as many, by the agency’s own estimate, have been displaced but have not had their need for international protection formally recognized. Every year, less than one per cent of refugees are permanently resettled in a country that is willing to offer them the prospect of eventual citizenship.

Hannah Arendt—who fled Nazi Germany in 1933, lived in France as a displaced person, and came to the United States in 1941—observed that a refugee, a stateless person, who exists outside the framework of national laws, is by definition stripped of all rights. While we may claim, and believe, that people have rights by virtue of being human—that these rights are inalienable—in actuality, to exercise rights, a person has to be a member of a political community. Arendt called stateless people “rightless.” Their calamity, she wrote, “is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion—formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities—but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them.”

None of this means that asylum seekers should be put on buses or planes and sent to places they never meant to go—only that the preconditions for such treatment have existed for decades. The relative novelty is the weaponization of asylum seekers. “We take what’s happening at the southern border very seriously, unlike some—unlike the President of the United States, who has refused to lift a finger to secure that border,” DeSantis said, after taking credit for chartering the planes to Martha’s Vineyard. “We are not a sanctuary state. It’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction.” In other words, if Democrats like asylum seekers so much, they should take the responsibility for housing them. Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, was more direct. After buses dropped dozens of asylum seekers in front of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s house, Abbott told a Texas radio station, “She’s the border czar, and we felt that if she won’t come down to see the border, if President Biden will not come down and see the border, we will make sure they see it firsthand. . . . And listen, there’s more where that came from.”

Abbott and DeSantis did not invent the tactic. In 2021, the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka arranged for thousands of people from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and other countries, who were in need of international protection, to fly to Minsk, from where they were escorted to borders with European Union members Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. Years earlier, Vladimir Putin’s Russia appeared to facilitate the passage of people fleeing Syria—where Russian troops were waging war on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship—to Finland and Norway, apparently as part of a larger plan to destabilize European democracies.

The Republican governors’ strategies, like those of the Eastern European dictators, rest on the cynical assumption that no one actually wants to offer refuge to people fleeing adversity. From Putin’s or Lukashenka’s point of view, the gambit worked. The influx of refugees from Syria fuelled the rise of far-right parties even in countries as traditionally welcoming as Sweden. Poland has created an open-air prison at its border which locals refer to as the “death zone,” where refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere continue to suffer inhumane conditions, even as the country has willingly received millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia. Six months on, however, Europeans are starting to run out of compassion for white Christian refugees, too.

What Putin and Lukashenka probably believe that they have proved—and what Republican governors assume they will prove—is that all talk of welcoming people in need of protection is just that: the sentiment will crumble in the face of actual asylum seekers. The Trump Administration, in both rhetoric and policy, shattered the historical myth that the United States is a nation of immigrants. The Biden Administration has done little to reverse the effects of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, including the Muslim ban, the first iteration of which—in January, 2017—sparked mass protests. The Administration seems to assume assurances that the border is secure will forever be more popular with the public than policies that can be interpreted as encouraging immigration.

Abbott, DeSantis, and their supporters are indeed calling the Democrats’ bluff. They may well succeed in fomenting tension and resentment, not unlike what Putin and Lukashenka have done in Europe. It’s not so much that residents of Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C., will quickly tire of people seeking protection; it’s that the fundamental inhumanity of existing refugee and asylum policies suggests that they—that we—are indeed hypocritical to the core. ♦

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