Ron DeSantis Can’t Troll His Way Into the White House

The Florida governor’s cruel stunt will collide with the serious real-world problem of immigration.

Migrants waiting roadside
Jordan Vonderhaar / Reuters

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

This week, like almost every week, federal agents will drop hundreds of people at the bus station in Brownsville, Texas. Those people will complete some paperwork, then board a bus—or sometimes a flight from Brownsville’s airport—to other destinations across the United States. On a busy day, as many as 600 people might transit through the city, Mayor Trey Mendez told me last week. “These are real sophisticated travelers,” Mendez said. “They usually have their arrangements made by the time they get here. They’re very good at using technology to get where they need to go.”

The turnstile approach at border crossings such as Brownsville provides the emotional backdrop to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s Martha’s Vineyard airlift last week: Two planeloads of asylum seekers, comprising about 50 people (including several children), arrived unheralded on the island—courtesy of the governor’s office. That stunt looks to have involved deceptive and possibly illegal methods. It may end in a courtroom. For now, it’s upending politics.

When President Joe Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris references the supposedly “orderly” process at the border between the United States and Mexico, the routinized transit at places such as Brownsville is what they have in mind. The migrants deposited at the Brownsville bus station have invested much time and money to reach the United States from Central America, from Venezuela, from Haiti, or even farther. Most know exactly where they want to go and who will meet them there. They will spend only a few hours in the town, maybe a single night. They have not come this far to linger on the way.

Not everybody who walks across the border gets taken to a bus station. U.S. authorities yesterday reported figures through August 2022: With a month to go in the 2022 fiscal year, arrests at the border have exceeded 2 million for the first time in history. In July alone, the Border Patrol recorded some 200,000 encounters on the southern border. About 75,000 of those encounters resulted in almost immediate removal from the United States—although, as the patrol itself notes, many of those removed will then repeat their attempted entry. (The repeat crossers generate a lot of statistics: encounter, removal, encounter, removal, until at last they elude the patrol and enter the United States.) The other 125,000 July encounters were entered into a slower process, which in some cases results in removal, but in the interim means detention for some and release into the interior of the United States for many more.

Immigration statistics are quirky and confusing, but the bottom line is that the post-COVID United States is receiving people at the highest rates in recent history.

Not all of the people released into the United States are necessarily “illegal immigrants.” Many have made an asylum claim, and by international treaty and U.S. law, they are entitled to a hearing of that claim. Republican voters, however, tend to dismiss the fine distinction between those who cross the border illegally and those who cross to make their case in the legal asylum system. Most of the post-2020 asylum seekers are coming from Central American countries, and 65 percent of Republicans reject their right to claim asylum. Central America, after all, is not a war zone. The asylum seekers are not being oppressed on the basis of their race or religion. They are escaping poverty and violent crime, not persecution in any regular sense of that concept.

A Fox News poll this month found that 56 percent of Republicans describe themselves as “extremely concerned” about immigration, more than crime, the war in Ukraine, guns, climate change, or the state of U.S. democracy. Only inflation and higher prices excited Republican voters more.

Theoretically, asylum seekers have been accepted into the United States only provisionally, subject to adjudication of their claims by an immigration judge. But the crush of applications has overwhelmed the immigration tribunals. Walk across the border, avoid immediate expulsion, and you will be allowed to live and work in the United States for years to come. Lose your case before the immigration judge, and you can appeal it to the federal courts. Lose again, and the government must seek a deportation order. More appeals can then follow. When and if asylum seekers exhaust their last legal remedies, there is always the option of dropping out of the legal system entirely and gambling that the authorities will neither catch on nor catch up. It’s usually a winning bet.

The use of the asylum system as an alternative immigration corridor did not begin under President Biden. Migrants surged across the border in mid-2014 and again in 2016; and in the first months of the Trump administration, they also arrived in huge numbers. In December 2018, the Trump White House promulgated its “remain in Mexico” policy. People who crossed the border into the United States to claim asylum would be returned to the Mexican side to await their hearings. That obviously removed a lot of the incentive to travel to the United States to file a claim—and the border-crossing surge dramatically slowed after May 2019. Then COVID-19 struck, the U.S. job market collapsed, and for a time border crossing dipped lower still.

Early in his first term, Biden moved to end the “remain in Mexico” policy (though this was challenged in courts and only finally realized last month). Then the post-COVID job market revved up. Predictably—and it was predicted—the rush of border crossings resumed.

The Biden administration seems to have hoped that the crossings would diminish on their own. In May 2021, a White House statement congratulated itself that “The total number of unique encounters at the Southern border to date this fiscal year remains below the total number of unique encounters to date during fiscal year 2019 under the Trump Administration.” But the strength of the American job market doomed those early, self-deluding hopes. By mid-summer 2022, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had tallied five job openings for every three unemployed workers—and word has gone out around the planet.

In the U.S., about 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day. Younger workers are not as committed to the workforce as their departing elders were. Even now, in the fall of 2022, Americans of working age are less likely to be employed or seeking work than working-age Americans before the pandemic. The Chamber of Commerce estimates that 3.4 million Americans who might otherwise be expected to work are missing from the labor market.

To restore order at the border, two things must happen first: The rules at the border need to change, and more Americans need to return to work.

You’d think that politicians seeking votes on the immigration issue would offer ideas to meet those two necessities. But that’s not happening.

Instead, the leading critics of the Biden administration have launched harsh and deceptive stunts. They have duped asylum seekers onto buses and planes, promising to take them to jobs—but instead dumping them on the sidewalk across the road from the vice president’s residence or stranding them on the vacation island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Much has been said about the cruelty of these stunts. The Martha’s Vineyard operation was especially nasty, because it was designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the asylum seekers to meet their first court dates.

But something else is going on too, something even stranger and darker.

As Matthew Gertz of Media Matters has pointed out, DeSantis evidently got the idea for his Martha’s Vineyard airlift from a July 26 Tucker Carlson monologue (obviously, readers shouldn’t rely on his numbers):

Joe Biden took 70 percent of the vote on that small Massachusetts island. Over the past four years, according to FEC data, 92 percent of all donations from its biggest town, Edgartown, went to the Democratic Party. So you probably imagine Edgartown is pretty diverse; I mean, the Obamas live on the island, right? No. In fact, we checked. At last count Edgartown is 95.7 percent white. What century is this? As of 2019, only 3 percent of all people, all residents of Edgartown, were born outside of this country. So do the math: That’s 17 people, total. That’s effectively zero diversity, which means zero strength. They are begging for more diversity. Why not send migrants there? In huge numbers. Let’s start with 300,000 and move up from there. As the island gets stronger, more.

Embedded in this text that inserted a concept into the brain of the governor of Florida is a theory about how and why immigration happens. It’s not responding to incentives, signals, and rules—not even perverse incentives, signals, and rules. It’s a plot. It’s a plot inflicted punitively on Real America by cosmopolitan elites. The right response to this plot, the theory continues, is not to address incentives, signals, and rules. The right response is to retaliate against the cosmopolitan elites, who are to blame for immigration, by imposing punitive diversity upon them too.

This way of thinking is conspiratorial, paranoid, and vengeful.

It’s also wrong and stupid.

Nobody who thinks this way about immigration is going to be able to do anything about immigration. If you don’t understand how things work, you cannot fix things when they go wrong.

Trump’s border wall was a pretty dumb idea. But it did connect to reality. The border did exist, and it could be fortified. The cost might be extreme, the benefit negligible, but the construction job could be done.

The Carlson-DeSantis theory of immigration, however, does not describe anything that exists in this world. It’s a fantasy, born out of the reactionary imagination.

Maybe DeSantis knows that. Maybe not. At this point, what does it matter? He is campaigning as the man who will channel his party’s most brutish impulses. DeSantis is testing whether he can troll his way, Trump style, to its presidential nomination. But Trump’s one-term presidency showed the limitations of trying to troll your way through office.

Reality is real; it can be ignored on cable news but not from the White House. A great country cannot be governed by juvenile memes from hate-filled message boards.