On September 14, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew 48 Venezuelan asylum-seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in a “political stunt” that has garnered national attention and exacerbated existing tensions about American immigration and political morality. The migrants, who were promised “work opportunities, schooling for the children and immigration assistance,” according to the lawsuit filed against DeSantis, instead found themselves stranded in Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis preyed on their situation, using them to advance his own political goals. They had only their most innate human desire to blame for their mistreatment: the yearning for a better life. The governor, in his exploit, cruelly took advantage of these people and acted in a way that sacrificed moral principles for publicity. A political call to action should be convincing without needing to put in danger innocent people who only ask for safety and asylum.
American sympathy to this desire has become increasingly divided along party lines. Republicans are more likely to favor increased deportation of undocumented immigrants, while Democrats generally support increased opportunity for those immigrants to pursue legal status. Since the Biden administration’s reversal of former President Trump’s immigration policies, the Southern border has seen a sharp influx of immigration. Humane solutions respecting everyone involved are in dire need, but little headway has been made to implement them. DeSantis’s petty scheme was not constructive in the search for solutions, but inflammatory in highlighting the lack of them, thrusting issues onto others instead of helping relieve them.
The governor’s stunt was intended to give Northern, bluer states a much-needed reality check, showing them how the policies they support affect Southern states with higher immigration rates. In his own words, “We are not a sanctuary state…every community in America should be sharing in the burdens.” His sentiment is clear: DeSantis harbors frustration toward states he thinks should pitch in to solve his “problems.” By giving them a taste of their own medicine, as it was, he hopes that more Americans might feel sympathy for Texas and other states which find themselves with too many immigrants and not enough resources. Did DeSantis imagine that from his actions a solidarity between states would arise, where we compassionately unite to provide food and shelter to those in need? Or did he do it simply to get a rise out of as many people as he could?
The true answer, somewhere between these two extremes, is less important than the direct effects of DeSantis’ choices on the migrants he mistreated—any unity resulting from those choices is secondary to the despicable way they were cultivated. Would it be accurate to categorize the flights as activism, which is defined as “vigorous action to bring about social change”? At what point do we draw the line between vigorous and vengeful? Who is supposed to benefit from that “social change”? Without an ethical framework to guide one’s actions, activist movements can degenerate into dangerous, harmful ones, where a responsibility for the betterment of society is replaced by vindication for anyone who disagrees with you, and even violence if you encounter one. Discarding their moral compass, political movements might inflict only the most surface-level changes, made possible by the short-lived rage of those reading a deliberately exaggerated news headline. There would be no barrier on how much harm is condonable in the name of the movement’s goals, and petty political infighting would become the norm, if it hasn’t already.
DeSantis’s actions left the gray area of moral ambiguity and entered the realm of unconscionable human mistreatment when he used the power and resources entrusted to him to turn human beings into little more than political props. Whether or not his opinion on immigration is valid is not the point– his actions themselves were repulsive. The victims were deprived of their autonomy, misled into giving the weakest form of consent: a “yes” without knowing all the facts. They were left in a foreign state with only strangers to turn to for help, exactly as DeSantis intended when he spoke of passing on “burdens.” Clearly, the stunt was intended to provoke outrage and draw attention to immigration in America, which it certainly did, but it also showed these migrants that they were at the mercy of those in power.
What does it mean for our democracy that those elected to office feel comfortable tricking asylum seekers into boarding cross-country flights, and knowing that such actions may bolster their chances at the polls instead of hurting them? It’s crucial to remember that leaders who make dramatic gestures to advocate for their views should still retain their humanity. It’s worrying to think of a world where they don’t, and more so to consider that we might live in one.
As a Lawrentian, I’d hope that you appreciate the power of beneficial social change, and seeking “the best for all.” Activism isn’t just done by morally questionable governors, but by citizens and students as well. Students around the world are enacting change and assuming responsibility for those who need their help. However, simply holding power isn’t enough to be a good leader– one needs to be conscientious and compassionate as well. By thinking more critically about what kinds of activism are justified and where we draw the line, we can hold our leaders accountable when they do cross it.