With 2024 campaigns heating up, immigration politics are as well, and we can expect the election cycle to bring much fire and brimstone. Sadly, as has long been the case in U.S. history, immigrants will likely suffer as a result of the political maneuverings.   

Seeking to establish his tough immigration enforcement credentials as the Republican primaries near, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made headlines by taking the extraordinary step of flying migrants to Democratic states that are more open to immigrants. Last year, he arranged for a group to be flown to tourist destination Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, a Democratic bastion. And over the last week, DeSantis sent several flights to Sacramento making it the latest blue-state dumping ground. 

Sadly, DeSantis’ publicity stunts adversely affect real people and real lives. To his credit, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and others embraced the migrants with open arms,  providing them with food, shelter and lawyers to help them address their immigration status.  

Although the migrant relocation program may be new, it is just the latest chapter in the cynical practice of playing politics with immigrant lives.  

Immigrant bashing has a long history in the United States. In a period of Chinese immigration in the 1800s, California strongly advocated for national Chinese exclusion laws, which effectively led to a ban on Chinese immigration to the United States. 

More recently, former President Donald Trump famously kicked off his successful 2016 presidential campaign by attacking Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.” As president, he continued similar rants toward Haitians, Salvadorans and others. Trump appealed to his anti-immigrant base, and fomented even greater hate.  

For four years, the Trump administration pursued tough immigration policies, narrowed asylum relief, talked of a “beautiful” wall along the southern border and ending birthright citizenship. He also closed the border under Title 42, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid, and the “remain in Mexico” policy forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their claims were being decided in the United States. 

President Trump’s tough talk translated into unforgiving policies, felt by immigrants, their families and communities. Two of the most memorable policies were the heartless separation of children from their parents, and the ban on the admission of migrants from Muslim nations.  

Immigrant communities in the U.S. responded as expected. Terrified to leave their homes, some parents feared taking their children to church, doctors and school. Activists fought back but the damage was done. 

Unfortunately, DeSantis follows the same anti-immigrant playbook as Trump. In fact, he seems to be trying to outdo Trump on immigration enforcement. 

The governor demonizes immigrants at every turn and supports policy measures that punish them. At his behest, the Florida legislature passed a tough state immigration law, much of which appears to intrude on the federal power to regulate immigration and thus likely violates the U.S. Constitution. It requires employers to use a federal database to verify the employment eligibility of employees and invalidates out-of-state drivers licenses for immigrants.  

Put simply, DeSantis seeks to make headlines by playing with immigrant lives. He is appealing to the nation’s baser instincts and, in the end, does little to address the nation’s challenging immigration policy issues—which include reforming the system of legal immigration, addressing the legal status of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. and determining how best to enforce immigration laws stateside and at the border. 

In the end, the migrants dumped in Sacramento are part of a larger ploy to score political points and win elections, not address the immigration issues facing the nation.  

Kevin R. Johnson is the dean and Mabie-Apallas professor of public interest law and Chicana/o studies at the UC Davis School of Law. He wrote this column for CalMatters.org.

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