Guest columnist David Hernández: Climate, refugees, and the golden rule

Migrants hold blankets after arriving at Union Station near the U.S. Capitol from Texas on buses in April 2022. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has continued to send migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border by bus charters to Washington and other liberal-led cities.

Migrants hold blankets after arriving at Union Station near the U.S. Capitol from Texas on buses in April 2022. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has continued to send migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border by bus charters to Washington and other liberal-led cities. AP

By DAVID HERNÁNDEZ

Published: 01-23-2024 4:54 PM

Political hypocrisy is the norm for our times. One shameful example of partisan duplicity is the persistent xenophobic vilification of migrants and asylum seekers arriving to the United States in order to boost one’s political scorecard. Two repeat offenders of anti-immigrant grandstanding are Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and former presidential candidate Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Although migration and border politics have long been a fountain of political currency, gamesmanship with immigrant pawns splashed onto the scene in 2022 when DeSantis and his subordinates coerced 50 weary migrants — many who claimed they were misled — from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

Jelani Cobb decried the stunt succinctly in The New Yorker, calling the feat an exercise in “calcified cruelty, malignant politics, and questionable legality.” That sounds about right.

Where DeSantis chases political spectacle, Abbott pursues volume. His steady flow of buses has relocated 80,000 lawful asylum seekers — yes, they are lawful migrants — to so-called sanctuary cities (including New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and others) since April 2022. They are often stranded without notice to their unsuspecting hosts.

Abbott is no stranger to political charade either — recall on Christmas Eve 2022, Abbott dumped 130 migrants in freezing weather at the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris.

The anti-immigrant sentiment does not stop there. Texas passed the most punitive state legislation against migrants in a decade, permitting Texas authorities and local judges to apprehend suspected undocumented migrants and determine their status and deportability, a process normally within federal jurisdiction. This month, three migrants (including two children) drowned on Abbott’s watch, while Texas authorities blocked Border Patrol access to the Rio Grande.

Florida legislation criminalizes hiring and transporting undocumented migrants and invalidates lawful forms of migrant identification. In addition, both states have passed domestic health and educational policies aimed at LGBTQ+ adults and children, as well as African Americans.

The central contradiction of Abbott’s and DeSantis’ cruel manipulation and sustained news media performance is that both states are regions of consistent need, vulnerability, and displacement among their own residents — not just weary asylum seekers. Texas and Florida sit at the crossroads of both migrant life and climate catastrophe.

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These aren’t one-off crises or anomalies, but persistent, practically year-round dynamics, draining state and federal resources. At times, climate disaster and asylum merge, such as when Abbott bused 37 migrants, including 15 children and a newborn, to Los Angeles during tropical storm Hilary, when California had declared an unprecedented state of emergency.

As we have witnessed in the Trump era, naked hypocrisy among politicians is more of a competition than a behavioral flaw. Abbott and DeSantis should wonder if their chickens will come home to roost. They ought to reconsider their malicious treatment of displaced and needy persons as dangerous winter weather begins and record heat awaits, the latter dovetailing with the annual hurricane season.

In 2022, Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 storm and the deadliest in almost 90 years, slammed Florida and the Southeast. Two and a half million people were placed under evacuation orders.

Nationally speaking, there are wildfires, extreme heat or cold (2023 was the hottest year on record), and brutal storms on our coasts and in the interior. Few know that the United States was ranked fifth in the world in 2020 and sixth at the end of 2022 for persons “living in internal displacement” as a result of weather and geophysical disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva. As well, Texas ranks No. 1 of the 15 states in weather-related fatalities over the last nine years.

I doubt that the governors of California or New York will trick climate-displaced Texans or Floridians into a sudden plane or bus ride to Oklahoma City or Colorado Springs, or Knoxville, Tennessee, or some other anti-woke city. But what if taxpayers suffer compassion fatigue or leaders deploy resources reluctantly, as we saw in Puerto Rico for Hurricane María?

What if, fearing their own treatment, thousands of migrant laborers — documented and undocumented — do not relocate to storm-ravaged cities, such as New Orleans after Katrina, in order to rebuild them? Major insurance providers have already made their risk calculations, and four have pulled out of Florida (and two from California) in the past year. What price will Abbott and DeSantis exact on their state residents for flouting the “golden rule?”

Cynical and reckless endangerment of asylum seekers, including children, for political gain is repulsive and disqualifying for political leadership. The global pandemic taught us that collective concern for neighbors and mutual aid are the only way forward and that rationing safety is deadly.

There are plenty of rationales guiding humanitarian relief, including neighborly concern, religious beliefs, or reciprocal relationships. I suggest we start with plain decency. That should be enough.

David Hernandez is an associate professor of Latinx Studies & Critical Race and Political Economy at Mount Holyoke College.