Guest columnists Anthony Enriquez and Alexander Rougeau: DeSantis could unwittingly have paved way for interstate collaboration on asylum seekers
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's latest piece of political theater has unwittingly created a path for leaders to work together on a humane response to the arrival of asylum-seekers in our country.
DeSantis set aside $12 million to charter private planes to fly asylum-seekers to remote Northeast towns and now faces a federal class action lawsuit for the operation. He stole the idea from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier this summer began busing asylum-seekers to self-proclaimed sanctuary cities like Washington, D.C., and New York. Mayors in those cities have played their own roles in fanning anti-immigrant hysteria, declaring asylum-seekers' arrival public emergencies that threaten to overwhelm social services.
Underlying these tactics was a deeply cynical wager. Local leaders gambled that when Americans are confronted with the opportunity to help a person fleeing danger, we would look away and lock our doors. They lost. Support for asylum-seekers in Martha's Vineyard was so clear and overwhelming that aid groups have had to turn volunteers away.
Local residents are showing not only compassion, but the progress we can make on complex immigration issues when we work together. Political leaders should take note. Instead of sowing chaos, border states could initiate partnerships with cities and states that are hubs for immigrant communities throughout the U.S., collaborating to assist asylum-seekers in reaching their ultimate destinations. State and city leaders could help newly arrived migrants more efficiently integrate into communities where their contributions are welcome.
Asylum-seekers don't arrive in the United States looking for a handout: by law, immigrants without status don't qualify for federal public benefit programs. In contrast, federal law does grant asylum-seekers authorization to work. Many come to the United States with a destination in mind, knowing that family or diaspora communities can provide them temporary housing or other support while they get on their feet.
But current federal policy overlooks these natural ties when it comes to reception of asylum-seekers. Instead, it criminalizes people seeking humanitarian support, caging them in isolated detention centers and private prisons, and severing their access to attorneys.
We know this firsthand. In recent monthly visits, RFK Human Rights attorneys have met with hundreds of asylum-seekers trapped in Louisiana's rural jails, now converted to detention centers. We provide education on their rights and work to ensure they receive decent medical care in safe living conditions while detained.
Their desperation and confusion is awful to witness. "We committed no crimes. We were running from danger. Why are we being imprisoned?" we are often asked. Those released from detention, often on exorbitant cash bonds, find themselves stranded and destitute, with no way to reach families or communities in far-off locales.
Here's where states could step in. What if Florida used the $12 million dollars it currently allocates to expel asylum-seekers from its borders to instead contract legal and social aid groups? Social workers could assess whether an asylum-seeker has support from family or friends in another location and facilitate transportation there. Lawyers could ensure that asylum-seekers awaiting court dates obtain notice of their hearings and access to counsel in their ultimate destination.
Resettlement cooperation would be advantageous for many reasons. Detention centers are always costly and their conditions are often inhumane. Cooperative resettlement would limit these costs, allowing asylum-seekers to efficiently and humanely access private support systems in welcoming communities.
Resettlement cooperation would also increase the likelihood that asylum claims are reviewed fairly and efficiently. Decreasing the use of detention would increase access to attorneys, who in turn would help the currently backlogged asylum adjudication system run more efficiently by ensuring compliance with complex immigration law standards and procedures. This would also ensure the United States fulfills its international human rights law obligations to fairly adjudicate requests for asylum.
As our namesake said, "our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as their talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances."
It's time to make that happen once and for all.
• Anthony Enriquez is an attorney director of U.S. advocacy and litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Alexander Rougeau is the Pinto Fellow at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.