How Democrats Can Turn the Tables on DeSantis

Republicans’ cruel immigration tactics present an opportunity for blue cities.

A photo of Venezuelan migrants in Martha's Vineyard
Ray Ewing / Vineyard Gazette / Reuters

Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, the Republican governors of Florida and Texas, respectively, have exploited thousands of migrants by busing and flying them to New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Martha’s Vineyard, off Massachusetts. The idea is simple: Make the Democrats deal with the border crisis and prove they’re all hypocrites, human rights be damned.

As a matter of optics, it’s not yet clear who has emerged ahead. Martha’s Vineyard, rather than the large cities, captured the public imagination in the past week. Indeed, the crisis didn’t become a crisis until DeSantis picked as a destination an island retreat for the ultra-wealthy. In that sense, Democrats did fall for the immoral stunt. They cared more about Edgartown than Midtown. Lis Smith, a prominent Democratic strategist, tweeted, “Trap laid, bait taken, right wing gets their headline” with a picture of a New York Post front page that declared, “Liberals Deport Migrants.” The conservative newspaper accused “rich Dems” of hypocrisy because they’d sent the migrants to a military base on Cape Cod, where they could be provided temporary shelter and humanitarian aid. Of course, many Martha’s Vineyard residents embraced the migrants. That part of the conservative narrative—of snooty white liberals cowering in horror—was simply untrue.

But the Democrats have an opportunity here. Rather than lament yet another disingenuous culture war that Republicans are thirsty to wage, Democrats of all ideological stripes should use this moment to celebrate the very places that could become permanent homes for migrants fleeing violence and economic calamity. Since the pandemic-induced crime spike, Trump Republicans have inveighed against big cities, taking up an incendiary and racially coded 20th-century playbook to throw Democrats on the defensive. Few prominent Democrats have offered an adequate counterargument. Now political leaders who care about immigrants should declare, affirmatively and loudly, Yes, send them here.

Send them to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Send them to Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis. And send them to the cosmopolitan cities trapped in red states that will welcome migrants. San Antonio, Houston, and Miami are enriched by refugees and their children, people who have fled oppression for a better life in America.

To her credit, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has been on the front line of this new messaging battle, championing her own district, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, as a home for migrants. “My district is nearly 50% immigrant. We speak 100+ languages, have 2 public hospitals that treat all regardless of status/income, and still have enough left over to help states like Florida,” the congresswoman recently tweeted. “We know how to care for each other, and are pretty damn good at it.” AOC’s clapback instincts don’t always serve her well, but having an unapologetically progressive political superstar is in this case very much to the Democrats’ benefit. She won’t let them ignore the issue, and for the next few weeks, at least, they can’t.

And Ocasio-Cortez is, on the substance, correct. New York City is extraordinarily diverse, already home to thriving immigrant populations and many Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. The social safety net that has been built to absorb immigrants and new citizens is entirely alien to DeSantis and Abbott. Public hospitals treat the poorest of the poor. Public colleges offer tuition scholarships, regardless of immigration status. Municipal ID cards allow anyone to open a bank account. Undocumented immigrants are now allowed to have a driver’s license too.

These are all strengths of New York, not weaknesses. The migrant crisis at the southern border is very real, and the left can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. An open border policy is not feasible. What is crucial is immigration reform that can offer a viable, seamless path to citizenship for those who want it and that can allow refugees to get work quickly. It was always a canard that low-wage immigrant workers undercut the employment of American citizens—they were, almost always, performing the sort of punishing work that most Americans would rather not do at all—but it is even less true now, in an economy where demand for service-sector work remains robust. Many employers are still struggling to fill job openings. This is especially true in New York, where restaurants can’t return to their pre-pandemic hours because of a lack of waitstaff and cooks.

Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York City, has offered a muddled response since migrants first began showing up months ago. Unlike AOC, he has not unambiguously touted New York as a mecca for all those seeking refuge. Rather, Adams has mulled the possibility of weakening the city’s right-to-shelter provision, a sweeping law that guarantees space in a homeless shelter for anyone who needs it. At first blush, his perspective is reasonable—more than 11,000 migrants have come to New York since May. The city’s shelter population has grown by more than 5,000 since the beginning of August, reaching 56,000.

But that number, while troubling, is still not the 60,000 the city sheltered in 2016 under Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio never at any point contemplated reevaluating New York’s landmark housing law. A competent government can manage the migrant surge and eventually connect these refugees to jobs and permanent housing. Many will be eager to leave the shelters anyway. If the influx of migrants ever proves too much for New York to properly manage, the federal government should intervene and ensure that other cities are ready to absorb them.

If the Biden administration wants to get ambitious about reviving the ailing cities of the Rust Belt, federal officials could actively help migrants relocate there. The federal government could coordinate with mayors and governors ahead of time, instead of busing migrants without warning to politically expedient locales, like DeSantis and Abbott did. Cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis have long bled residents and would be well served with a new class of immigrants enthusiastic about finding work and wanting to remain in a country far more stable than their homeland. Refugees, in great enough numbers, could begin to repopulate vacant neighborhoods, launch new businesses, and eventually create new generations of taxpayers. Some may even decide they want, in the years to come, to move to Florida or Texas. Perhaps by then, the governors of those states will perceive them, simply, as Americans.