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7 weeks from Election Day, migrants take center stage in political theater

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he arrives for a news conference on Sept. 7.
Rebecca Blackwell
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he arrives for a news conference on Sept. 7.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took something of a victory lap this weekend for his controversial flight sending migrants to the tony northeastern island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

"This is a crisis. It's now getting a little bit more attention," DeSantis said in Kansas during a leg of a tour organized by the conservative group Turning Point Action.

It's hardly a coincidence that DeSantis' stunt came days before his stops in Kansas and Wisconsin, where he campaigned for Republican candidates. His political ambitions are well known. He has become a conservative darling and a potential heir to the MAGA brand — a more disciplined version of former President Donald Trump, who continues to heavily suggest he will run again for president in 2024.

DeSantis is also up for reelection in Florida this year. And nothing fires up the Republican base quite like immigration. Trump used anti-immigrant rhetoric to vault himself to the top of GOP presidential contention in 2015.

"I think he got out of it what he intended: greater visibility for the issue," said Danny Diaz, a Republican strategist who ran former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential campaign. "And the reality is for about half the country, they entirely agree."

DeSantis hinted that this was his goal during his two stops over the weekend. He said that more people are paying attention to the issue now and that it's "on the ballot." Judging by the news coverage his move has received, it worked.

There is risk, however, in potentially alienating voters who see the move as unserious in not addressing the core issue and using migrants as political pawns. Migrants, who made the trip, said they felt "lied to," "deceived" and "used for a political purpose."

"We didn't think these people would be so cruel, so cold-blooded to do this to us," Elid Aguilar, 27, of Venezuela, told the San Antonio Report.

The move has echoes of the Reverse Freedom Rides of the 1960s, set up by white supremacists who persuaded poor Black families in the South to board buses to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

A Texas sheriff said Monday night he is opening a criminal investigation into what happened.

"What we understand is a Venezuelan migrant was paid a bird-dog fee to recruit 50 migrants who were then were lured — and I will use the word 'lured' under false pretenses — to staying in a hotel for a few days, then taken to an airplane where they were flown to Florida and then Martha's Vineyard under false pretenses of being offered jobs," said Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat. "For what we can gather, a little more than a photo op, a video op, and then they were left there."

The migrants had been at the Migrant Resource Center in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located.

Diaz said he views what DeSantis and other Republican governors are doing in sending migrants to more liberal-leaning states and municipalities as an effort to fire up the base.

"At this juncture, 50 days from an election, with people entrenched on either side and the vast majority of independents having a dim view of the economy and both sides seeking to energize their bases," Diaz said, "this is kind of par for the course on both sides."

Immigration has not been a principal voting issue in these midterm elections

Inflation has been the top concern for voters, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Abortion rights have been the top voting issue for Democrats. Since the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights have shaken up the electoral landscape and increased Democrats' enthusiasm.

Immigration, though, has been the No. 2 issue for Republicans, with more than 1 in 5 identifying it as their top issue. Just 1% of Democrats and 8% of independents said it was theirs.

"We need solutions and not theater," Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday. "The migrants are human beings, and we've got to treat them like human beings. They are being used as political pawns to get publicity."

Immigration has, however, been a simmering issue, particularly in border communities like the district that Cuellar represents in Texas. The U.S. on Monday crossed 2 million migrants arrested this year at the southern border, the most ever. Cuellar thinks more still needs to be done, including publicizing immigration enforcement.

"When was the last time you saw — you saw a picture or video of people going back?" he said. "You only see people coming in. And you've got to have words, along with action to enforce it."

Others think the Biden administration is getting a bad rap.

"This administration, I believe unfairly, is perceived as lax on border enforcement," former Obama Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Face the Nation.

He noted that the U.S. has been "sending back over 100,000 people a month" for the last two years. That comes out to more than 2 million people, he said.

Some of this, Johnson argued, is messaging.

"The lesson I learned managing this issue is, you've got to repeat yourself maybe 25 times before anybody will listen to you," he said. "You have to show that we are, in fact, sending people back."

The reactions to DeSantis' move have been divergent

Conservatives have predictably cheered it. They quite literally did so, giving DeSantis a standing ovation in Kansas when he mentioned it. They see the move as pointing out the liberal hypocrisy of creating "sanctuary city" and state statuses in places that are not dealing with the same influx that many border states are seeing.

Democrats and progressives point to local communities, state governments and nonprofits scrambling to helpthe migrants in Martha's Vineyard and in places like the District of Columbia, where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also sent busloads of migrants over the past several months.

That's far different from luring people onto a plane with fake brochures and promises of "sanctuary" and work in Boston when none had been secured.

Almost no one thinks the immigration system in the U.S. isn't broken. Americans do not see either political party as handling the issue perfectly.

But the Republican Party has undergone much more of a political evolution in just the last decade. The GOP has come a long way from having a president who pushed for immigration reform to one that used it as a political football.

Few, if any, Republicans left in Congress are seriously interested in fixing the immigration system to include a path to legalization for the millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

The closest Congress came in recent years was almost a decade ago when, in 2013, 68 senators, including 14 Republicans, voted for an immigration overhaul before conservatives in the House killed it.

More recent efforts have failed to progress, particularly with such a narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.

"We can make the borders safe and have a system of legal entry into the United States to work, put these people on the books, have them pay taxes, make sure we've done a background check," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on NBC's Meet the Press. "All of these things can be done. Are they controversial? You bet. Some of them are very controversial. But we know we need to do it. The United States is a nation of immigrants. I'm proud to be the son of an immigrant who came to this country. But I will tell you, if we're going to do it in this era, we can't wait another 30 years to get around to a solution."

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.