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Perspective: What the conversations about Martha’s Vineyard left out

Charities run by faith groups provide the invisible infrastructure for migrants, but we need meaningful reform

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A woman, who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard.

A migrant holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration’s failed border policies. 

Ray Ewing, Vineyard Gazette via Associated Press

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard with no notice. The move made headlines nationwide, which was the point. DeSantis framed the action as an exposure of liberal hypocrisy — it’s one thing to vote yourself a sanctuary city, another thing to handle the work of accommodating an influx of immigrants. 

But DeSantis’ stunt didn’t bring the border to the north. He sent people to Martha’s Vineyard without bringing any of the support structures that have been built up at the border.

The residents of the Massachusetts island worked quickly to care for the unexpected arrivals. Cots were set up at a school; a Spanish-language Mass was arranged, and, ultimately, the National Guard was summoned to help migrants get to where they actually intended to go. 

The response was admirable, but it didn’t mirror what the best practices at the border are —and it couldn’t have been. What happens at the border isn’t a matter of spontaneous charity and hospitality. There is an invisible infrastructure, which doesn’t make headlines, but is the fruit of patient work by charities and activists to fill the gaps in our broken asylum system.

By the time an asylum-seeker crosses the border and self-reports to a Border Patrol agent, several things have already gone wrong. The ideal process — for America and for the refugee — is to apply for asylum from their home country, working through the U.S. Embassy. If that isn’t possible, someone seeking refuge in the U.S. could present at a port of entry to ask for shelter — that is, if America hadn’t shut down most of those checkpoints or tightly metered them. Refugees huddle in tent cities on the border, working together to keep track of who arrived when so people can wait their turn, sometimes for months. 

Since the U.S. has made it so difficult to follow the official procedures, many migrants cross the border illegally, following dangerous routes, and seek out Border Patrol once they’ve crossed to turn themselves in and begin the asylum application process. 

This is the pattern; the official system is broken, and charitable organizations and activists keep a broken system from being even worse than it is.

It’s organizations and individuals who put out water in the desert, trying to save migrants from death by dehydration. It’s border-based religious charities like HIAS and Catholic Charities that wait at bus stations, help migrants reach their intended destinations and settle in a city where they have family or countrymen. It’s people who work every day on the border who have a Quechua translator on retainer. 

The space between what the government provides and what asylum-seekers need is a gap that can’t be covered simply with good intentions and a willingness to get involved. It requires sustained investment and institutional presence.

The no-notice flights to Massachusetts are “a deliberate, malicious effort to take people away from that,” in the eyes of Todd Schulte. He is the president and executive director of FWD.us, a bipartisan immigration lobbying group, and spoke to me on the phone in the wake of DeSantis’ stunt. Without charitable and activist organizations covering the “last mile” of asylum policy, he said, the system would fall apart.

“That’s a policy choice,” Schulte said. “It’s not what we do with water, outside of Flint and Jackson.”

The analogous approach, he said, would be if your municipal water company was only responsible for getting some kind of water to your door, and you were responsible for filtering, boiling and testing it yourself. A charitable organization might spring up to help the most vulnerable with these tasks, going door-to-door with mobile purification stations. But we’d make a mistake if we simply praised their kindness without holding the water company to account for its inadequacy.  

If DeSantis and other border governors want relief, they should demand meaningful immigration reform to reopen the ports of entry and ease the way to apply for refuge at American embassies around the world. There’s no reason refugees should raft across Texan rivers when they could fly directly to their destination, papers already processed. 

And if the governors want other states to help shoulder the weight of resettlement, they can look to the successful work of refugee resettlement agencies run by Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran and Episcopal partners. These groups don’t rely on spontaneous charity, but help families make planned, sustained commitments to mentor newly arrived immigrants as they find their footing in the United States. 

If DeSantis thought dumping migrants with no notice was equivalent to what happens in Florida, he has seriously underestimated the good work his own people are doing. It is institutional know-how and expertise that acts as a force-multiplier for private generosity. The poorest and most vulnerable deserve our best efforts. The people of Martha’s Vineyard did well, but as a nation, we can do much better.

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.