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Opinion: The migrants in Martha’s Vineyard are people, not political fuel

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes credit for sending two planes loaded with refugees to Martha’s Vineyard. The stunt lost its power as the refugees told their stories

SHARE Opinion: The migrants in Martha’s Vineyard are people, not political fuel
Immigrants with their belongings are pictured outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Martha’s Vineyard.

Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of 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

All you have to do is look at them; a little girl with braided hair and a pink outfit, two young men admiring jackets donated to them, a mechanic who tells a reporter in Spanish that he’s grateful for the help he has received.

These are human beings, no different from any others, except they come from Venezuela, a place the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom lists as the 32nd freest economy among the 32 nations of the Americas. It is a nation, the index says, struggling with hyperinflation, repression, huge public debt and a general lack of confidence in the rule of law.

“I came here walking,” a man named Eliase told the Vineyard Gazette, which covers Martha’s Vineyard. “We went through 10 different countries until we got to Texas.”

How far would you walk for freedom?

The particulars of how two planeloads of refugees ended up in the remote island of Massachusetts last week are unclear. They claim to have come from San Antonio, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking credit for sending them. 

The reasons they find themselves there, however, are obvious. Martha’s Vineyard is a vacation spot for the wealthy, and often for wealthy Democrats. Former president Barack Obama has a house there. The Clintons have vacationed there. DeSantis, a Republican, clearly sent the refugees there as a statement, much as he and other governors have sent busloads of refugees, unannounced, to Washington, New York and Chicago.

I have heard pundits say that, if nothing else, this stunt has started a national dialog about immigration. I disagree. All it has done is restart a national shouting match, with all sides retreating to foxholes and lobbing familiar grenades. These are grenades loaded with word-bombs like “amnesty,” and “border wall.” No one is listening. No one is trying to find a solution.

And in the middle are human beings seeking a better life, indomitably grateful for every little thing and each small opportunity sent their way. 

The website for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University says, “Human dignity is the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings.” It goes on to say that the basis for this is “our having been created in the image of God.”

But in warfare, whether it’s the real kind with bullets and bombs or the political kind where opponents are demons, human dignity is often the first casualty. Seeing ourselves in other people complicates matters, triggers emotions and muddles rigid ideologies.

In this case, the states where confused and weary refugees were sent may by the thankful beneficiaries. Statistics suggest that immigrants contribute greatly to local economies, especially during a tight labor crisis. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said about 27.2 million foreign-born adults were employed in the United States in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They hold jobs in many important low-skilled positions, and they contribute, in many ways, to the jobs native-born people hold. 

But, of course, they need a clear pathway to legal entry and jobs. Border security and processes are not bad things.

The governors who are using these people as political cannon fodder are representing Americans who genuinely feel overrun by a border system that is underfunded and understaffed, and by a border immigration system that is broken. DeSantis’ methods are crude and cruel, but the problem is real, and it is solvable, and it is one that ought to involve every state.

Congress holds the key, but its strategy, as with so many other divisive issues, is to cast blame, use the issue to raise money and push solutions onto the White House and the courts. The prime example is how children of undocumented immigrants, often called “Dreamers,” have been pushed around. 

Congress failed on that issue, so President Obama issued an executive order that gave those children temporary legal status, provided they either graduated high school or were honorably discharged from the military, and that they successfully passed a background check.

The Trump administration sued to reverse this and failed at the Supreme Court, but the issue will have no sense of permanence or closure unless Congress acts.

In Martha’s Vineyard, people rallied to help the refugees that were dropped at their doorstep. They provided for them, with the help of a local church. Both residents and refugees had their lives enriched, even if the island’s tourist season had ended and the refugees were sent further to Joint Base Cape Cod

One community member told CNN he was heartbroken by a woman who showed him pictures on her phone of people who had died along their journey through thick mud in a Central American jungle.

What would you endure for freedom? Or, perhaps more relevant, what could people who would endure all that for asylum offer the United States?