Migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis without notice, Edgartown, USA – 15 Sep 2022

The "Purposeful Cruelty" of Using Asylum Seekers as Political Pawns

June 28, 2021

Oct 7, 2022

Photo: CJ Gunther/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Often missing from accounts of the now widely discussed “shipment” of 48 immigrants from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard is the human story of those who were shipped.

One was Alejandro who spent three months walking from his home in Venezuela to the Texas border. Luis left Caracas and his journey to the border took two months. Jose, a former petrochemical engineering student, hiked through Central American jungles in knee-deep mud, past corpses of other migrants, before he made it to the border. 

All three were part of a migration, the largest international displacement in this hemisphere’s history, that has seen 6.8 million Venezuelans, more than 20% of the population, leave the country because of economic, social and democratic crises produced by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the government he controls. 

Like many others who arrived in that fashion, Alejandro, Luis, and Jose were detained at the border, applied for asylum, were processed, given dates for various court hearings, and released until those hearings occurred. But because of curable, though long uncured, delays in our  Government's processing of asylum applications, hearings that would determine the success or failure of their asylum petitions were years away. In the meantime, they received preliminary hearing dates vital to successful pursuit of their applications and, having complied with the law, were free to travel in the United States until their hearing arrived. 

In a story now widely known, the group of asylum seekers sent to Martha's Vineyard was approached in San Antonio by a woman investigators have identified as Florida resident Perla Huerta, an agent of some malign program headed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who recruited the migrants with promises of work, shelter, and immigration assistance.

Those who accepted her help were warehoused briefly in San Antonio, told they would be flown to Boston, given a map with a line running from someplace in East Texas to someplace in Eastern Massachusetts, and then put on a plane. 

The plane, paid for with Florida state funding, then headed to Martha's Vineyard where it arrived without advance notice, deposited the passengers, and left. In similar fashion, buses have departed from the southern border to deposit migrants at New York City bus terminals and in Vice President Kamala Harris’ front yard.

Those stunts are designed as "now let's see how you like it" efforts to expose the imagined hypocrisy of people and organizations, governmental and private, who urge humane treatment for men, women and children who seek asylum at the Nation's borders.

The effort failed because good people in Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere in Massachusetts immediately rallied to provide needed food, shelter and voluntary legal assistance. But significant consequences may remain. At least some members of the group were scheduled for near-term initial asylum hearings in San Antonio, and failure to attend those hearings could have a negative impact on their ability to continue with their asylum applications. 

Beyond that and even if adverse asylum consequences do not follow, these theatrics make involuntary use of real people, many of whom are fleeing almost unimaginably dreadful circumstances. They are not the drug dealers, rapists, murderers and the like that supporters of these cruel stunts make them out to be. They are, instead, desperate asylum-seekers who have been processed at the border and legally released into the United States in accordance with existing law. In short, they represent "the homeless, tempest-tost” whom the Statue of Liberty beckons to her "golden door." 

Sadly, we have seen this kind of cruelty before. In her recent article in The Atlantic, Caitlin Dickerson detailed the prior administration’s policy regarding families who crossed the border with young children. Under that policy, many of the children, some as young as infants, were taken from their parents at the border and held in separate custody while their parents were scattered across the country to await asylum hearings. The policy was designed to create a deterrent to families contemplating a border crossing as a path to a better life. In some cases, the asylum requests were granted and in some they were denied. In both cases, however,  reuniting the families was extremely difficult, often taking months or years. In a significant number of cases, deported parents no longer can be found, so reunification is impossible.

The potential impact on our democracy of these kinds of purposeful cruelty is significant. In its founding Statement, Lawyers Defending American Democracy identified as an essential ingredient of American democracy, “Civil discourse and fair treatment, including the respect for rights and the dignity of all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, [or] national origin….” 

Democracy and the rule of law suffer when those in power use human beings as pawns in their political games because, as a New York Times book reviewer recently put it so succinctly, "the most insidious, burrowing thing, isn't [the] cruelty: it's the way power obliterates consequences, the certainties that those responsible, by virtue of how deeply the game is rigged in their favor, will always get away with it."

The Massachusetts lawyers who voluntarily responded to provide legal assistance to the migrants who had become involuntary actors in Gov. DeSantis’s theatrics exemplify the best of our profession. Because of their voluntary responses, every one of the migrants now has pro bono legal representation. 

Now, it is the continuing responsibility of lawyers across this great Nation to use their legal training and their advocacy skills in and out of the courtroom, the boardroom, the community centers, and elsewhere to protect the vulnerable from such abuses of  power and to hold others accountable for their cruelty. The fair treatment of all that our democracy and the rule of law demand depend on it.

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