What's behind Venezuelan migrants in US being sent to 'sanctuary' destinations?

What's behind Venezuelan migrants in US being sent to 'sanctuary' destinations?
Migrants fleeing violence and poverty in Venezuela are being sent on buses and planes by Republican governors to "sanctuary" destinations across the US. These trips will likely continue as the US midterm elections approach.
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
27 September, 2022
Many Venezuelans are seeking a better life in the US. [Getty]

Earlier this month, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent an aeroplane full of Venezuelan refugees from the Texas southern border to the posh Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, both Democrats and Republicans appeared to claim a victory. 

Democrats showed that their humanitarianism by giving the new arrivals food, clothing and shelter. Republicans pointed to the fact that they had to be relocated from the island to show that they were not being invited to resettle there. In the end, most would agree that the country's immigration system needs reform.

Which states and cities are being targeted?

The states and cities that appear to be the target of these relocations, including flights and bus rides, are Democratic strongholds, or so-called sanctuary cities where cities or states protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution (who have not committed crimes), in spite of federal laws. 

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, all of the sanctuary states are majority-Democrat. However, there are many towns and cities in Republican-majority states that are considered sanctuary cities. 

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With these latest trips, which are still ongoing, the targeted locations seem to have a personal meaning for DeSantis and other Republicans. For example, aside from Martha's Vineyard, buses of immigrants are being sent to the home of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, DC, where the city has been increasing shelter space for new arrivals. Regular bus trips have also been going to New York City and Boston.

Also this month, migrants were sent to Sacramento, where according to local news reports at least some arrived without shoes or a place to stay. They were only given the address of a local charity.

A week after the flight to Martha's Vineyard, DeSantis announced that another plane full of migrants was scheduled to leave for President Joe Biden's home state of Delaware, but that was cancelled, and they were left at a hotel in San Antonio, Texas.

Though DeSantis made international news with the flight to Martha's Vineyard, Texas governor Greg Abbot has been busing migrants from Texas to sanctuary states and cities for some time. DeSantis' move is relatively unusual, given that he is not the governor of a border state. Both appear to have scored political points with their party.

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"Essentially, they're trying to own the left. You want a lenient immigration policy? We'll send them to you," Allyson Shortle, associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab.

"If their purpose was to get a reaction and show the left the errors of their ways, then this is a failure," she said. "People have been welcoming."

Are there valid reasons for relocating these migrants?

DeSantis' migrant relocations from Texas' southern border to so-called sanctuary states and cities are largely being described as a publicity stunt by Democrats. However, there are arguably good reasons for more evenly distributing migrants throughout the country.

The main reason to relocate migrants is to distribute resources more evenly, an argument being made by Republican politicians who support these journeys. For many years, the federal government has been locating asylum seekers in less diverse rural states so that big cities and border states would not be overwhelmed by new arrivals.

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"This is a political stunt before the midterms, but we do have a broken immigration system. Border states are dealing with it disproportionately," Stella Rouse, associate professor in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told TNA

She added, "Right now, there are not enough judges. The average waiting period for seeking asylum is four and a half years."

What are the migrants' legal statuses?

As asylum seekers, the migrants from Venezuela have the right to apply for asylum in the United States. In fact, they need to be physically present to do so. They are allowed to apply for asylum regardless of how they arrived or their immigration status, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. They have one year from their last arrival in the US to apply for asylum.

Their displacements, however, could affect their asylum process, especially if they relocated to a destination where their paperwork was not transferred from where they first applied for asylum. 

The Remain in Mexico Policy, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols, was implemented under former President Donald Trump in 2019. It required migrants to stay in Mexico until their US immigration court date. This policy was reversed under Biden and was ultimately decided by the court in June 2022.

Did DeSantis break the law?

It appears that DeSantis committed several violations, though he is unlikely to see any punishment due to his status as governor.

First, he sent migrants on a plane without telling them where they were going. Second, the migrants were given false promises (of jobs and accommodation, for example). Third, the relocation may have disrupted their asylum process.

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A Texas sheriff has opened a criminal investigation into the forced relocation of the mostly Venezuelan migrants whom he said were preyed upon for video ops.

DeSantis is facing multiple lawsuits, one of which is a class-action lawsuit in Massachusetts by at least three migrants who say they were duped into flying to Martha's Vineyard.

What can we expect in the coming weeks and months?

With the midterms coming up and with DeSantis appearing to have 2024 ambitions for a presidential run, the relocations of migrants are likely to continue. 

"Migrant caravans" from Central America, groups of thousands of refugees heading to the US border, tend to make headline news in the run-up to elections, and this is no different. So far, it has been a successful fundraising tool for DeSantis and other Republican politicians, making it likely that more planes and buses full of migrants will be heading to northern states and cities.

"If they know this is helping them, they will keep doing it," Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College, told TNA. "They are getting a lot of positive feedback from Republican voters, so they'll probably keep doing it."

She added, "I still think plenty of migrants will want to get on those planes. It's not necessarily bad. We shouldn't assume we know what migrants want. Of course, we don't want migrants exploited so that DeSantis can score political points."