The cruelty and absurdity of Republican governors’ scheme to ship asylum seekers to so-called “sanctuary cities” has been evident from the outset. For months now, Texas has bused migrants to Washington, D.C., and, more recently, New York City as part of Governor Greg Abbott’s effort to expose the supposed hypocrisy of jurisdictions that claim to welcome immigrants. Abbott reportedly did not communicate with local officials in either city about when buses would arrive or how many people were on them, causing confusion and chaos in migrants’ new homes—which was the intended effort all along. Not to be outdone, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently flew two groups of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. A cinematographer was on board one of the planes, DeSantis provided exclusive footage to Fox News, but no one from the governor’s office bothered to give locals a head’s up about the flights. The migrants themselves were misled into getting onto the planes: Some said that a woman named Perla told them they were going to Boston, enticing them with false promises of work, housing, and other assistance once they arrived there.
If Abbott and DeSantis’s goal is to send migrants to places where they’re unwelcome, they’re failing spectacularly. Residents of all three cities have mobilized to welcome newly arrived asylum seekers and support them to the best of their ability. High school AP Spanish students on Martha’s Vineyard helped interpret for the migrants, who mostly hailed from Colombia and Venezuela. Aid groups in Washington, D.C., and New York greet migrants at bus terminals and provide them with emergency resources like food, clothing, and medical attention. Still, the fact that migrants are being treated as political pawns—and the fact that there’s only so much local officials can do to help them—has compounded the trauma many have already faced. “I understand that they don’t want immigrants in Texas and Florida,” one asylum seeker told The Boston Globe. “However, human life is not a game.” Even those who have chosen to come to New York City have faced significant obstacles. This week, a migrant woman died by suicide in a New York City homeless shelter, where she lived with her two children.
This cruelty is worth highlighting, as are the efforts made to combat it with kindness. But the fact that migrants are being generally welcomed in the cities they’ve been sent to does not constitute a happy ending. They’ve still got immigration cases to win, and the Department of Homeland Security—which denies having colluded with Abbott or DeSantis to transport asylum seekers across the country—has ensured that the process will be as difficult as possible.
As I recently reported for Curbed, at least 70 migrants who arrived in New York City this summer had the address for Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, a local nonprofit, listed as their home address on their immigration paperwork. Over the course of several weeks in July, dozens of migrants arrived at the building thinking it was their new home, staffers told me—only to learn that it was an office building, and that they didn’t have anywhere to stay. Catholic Charities helped the asylum seekers get situated in the New York City shelter system, which is obligated under the city’s Right to Shelter law to provide housing to anyone who needs it, but getting a roof over their heads only solved their most immediate problem.
When Customs and Border Protection releases migrants from its custody after processing them at the border, it issues them a form called a Notice to Appear that includes the address where they’ll receive updates about their immigration court hearings. The fact that Catholic Charities’ office was listed on at least 70 migrants’ NTAs meant that they may not get those updates—and may miss court as a result, which could lead to a judge ordering their deportation. Until last November, CBP was releasing migrants with no known address with notices to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement rather than NTAs; the Biden administration ended this practice after Republicans complained that the government was unaware of migrants’ whereabouts as a result.
This shift has only produced more chaos. Migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard had the addresses for random homeless shelters across the country written on their NTAs, attorney Rachel Self said at a recent press conference. They were told to change their addresses on file with US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency that has nothing to do with these asylum seekers’ cases. “It is clear that this was an intentional attempt to ensure that these migrants were removed in absentia when they failed to change their address with the proper agency,” Self said. “This was a purposeful derailment designed to prevent people from complying with federal immigration policies.” Moreover, some of the asylum seekers had check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement scheduled within a few days of their arrival on Martha’s Vineyard—and these appointments were scheduled for the office nearest to the false addresses listed on their DHS paperwork. “It could not be clearer that this is an attempt to ensure that these people are removed even if they try as hard as they can to comply with the instructions provided to them,” Self continued.
Given this chaos, a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that there is, in fact a “crisis” at the border—or that the border is once again open to asylum seekers. In fact, the Title 42 expulsion order, imposed by President Trump at the beginning of the pandemic, which lets CBP and Border Patrol quickly expel migrants back to Mexico and, in some cases, to their countries of origin, remains in place. Thousands of people are being turned back each day. More than 71,000 migrants were expelled at the border in August, the most recent month for which data is available. That said, there are some exceptions to Title 42. Of the more than 110,000 people let into the country and put into deportation proceedings during that same time frame, more than 80 percent were from countries other than Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The migrants being granted entry into the US to claim asylum—the very people who Texas and Florida are shipping to sanctuary cities—are being let in due to their nationality, not due to any sense of humanitarian concern on the Biden administration’s part. These asylum seekers are largely from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, countries that largely don’t accept repatriation flights. Mexico won’t take them either, forcing the Biden administration to let them into the country even as it denies entry to tens of thousands of others.
It’s worth remembering that this two-tiered asylum system is relatively recent, as is the chaos it has borne. Before the pandemic began, DHS had no way of summarily denying access to asylum to people en masse. Abbott and DeSantis aren’t protesting “open border” policies; the border is still closed off to many asylum seekers, and the system is stacked against the few who manage to make it across anyway.