WASHINGTON — A pair of Southern Republican governors this week used dozens of migrants in a political stunt designed to club Democrats over the state of the country’s immigration system by loading the migrants onto planes and buses bound for highly progressive places in the world. the North.
But while the political message from the Florida government, Ron DeSantis, and the Texas government, Greg Abbott, was clear, the abrupt divestitures left uncertain what would happen to the people involved and raised complex questions about how the immigration system works, what rights migrants have and what legal matters are involved.
Immigration attorneys and legal observers said they were still determining whether any laws had been broken when Abbott sent nearly 100 migrants, including children, to be busted without warning outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, D.C. , and when DeSantis arranged for about 50 more to be flown on chartered planes to Martha’s Vineyard, the island vacation spot in Massachusetts.
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The migrants were already in an immigration limbo.
The migrants transported to Martha’s Vineyard are Venezuelans who recently crossed the southwestern border without permission and turned themselves in to border officials. The migrants dropped off at Harris’s home came from Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua and Panama and entered the country the same way.
After being taken into custody, they were screened and released to be prosecuted in the future. The Biden administration has used this process with almost all Cuban and Venezuelan border crossings because it lacks the diplomatic relations with those countries that would be necessary to send them back to those countries.
But many of the migrants are likely planning to apply for asylum, as they face violence or persecution in their home countries and fear returning. Under U.S. law, any migrant has the right to do so, which initiates a process in which federal officials determine whether the claim is valid and they can be allowed to reside legally in the United States.
That process is lagging behind for years, meaning these migrants, like many in the United States, live in a state of immigration limbo.
It is legal for states to transport migrants, but the drop-offs raise questions.
Under the law, once migrants have been released by border officials and served documents to appear in court, they are no longer in federal custody and can travel freely within the United States. It is not illegal for a state government to pay for that trip.
But if there is evidence that the migrants were being lied to by state officials about where they were going or what awaited them, as some lawyers have argued, the migrants would, according to Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown University.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, which represents some of the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard, said his clients were denied their constitutional right to a fair trial as the trip to Massachusetts likely means that they will not be able to attend their appointments with the Immigration Court in San Antonio.
“If you are coerced under false promises and put on a plane and told you will fly to one place and fly in the sky somewhere else, that is a deprivation of liberty that the Constitution prohibits,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Some lawyers have also said federal agents deliberately provided incorrect addresses for the migrants, preventing them from receiving proper reports for their immigration hearings. But it was unclear whether any laws had been broken; it is not uncommon for a federal agent confronting a migrant who does not have an address in the United States to list the name of a homeless shelter at the destination the migrant says he is going to.
While critics have compared DeSantis and Abbott’s actions to human trafficking or kidnapping, several lawyers question the possibility that they could be prosecuted for such crimes, as no evidence has surfaced that the migrants inadvertently boarded the flights or buses.
Top Trump officials first weighed migrant drop-offs.
Nonprofits have for years helped migrants pay for flights and buses to join friends and relatives in the United States.
But the government’s plan to deploy migrants in Democratic cities and towns dates back to former President Donald Trump’s administration, when it was embraced by Stephen Miller, his senior adviser and the architect of his immigration policy. Miller and other immigration hardliners in the administration saw the move as a way to retaliate against so-called refuges that limited their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
The idea was eventually scrapped after it was rejected by Matthew Albence, then deputy assistant director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who raised concerns about liability issues if a migrant was injured in transit. He also said the agency’s budget was not earmarked for the drop-offs.
Critics of the recent drop-offs of migrants have drawn comparisons to the so-called Reverse Freedom Rides organized in 1962 by white segregationists to retaliate against those protesting segregation in the South.
The segregationists deceptively promised jobs and permanent housing to black Americans, causing about 200 of them to travel north. Those families were also dropped off in Massachusetts, near President John F. Kennedy’s vacation home.
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