Governor Greg Abbott’s innovative campaign to bus refugees to northern states, which has metastasized to Arizona and Florida and gotten steadily crueler as it has spread, is not our state’s proudest export. Abbott has deployed thousands of migrants who have come to the U.S., fleeing danger and asking us for help, as political props. But the political logic of it is irrefutable.
Generally speaking, there are two things politicians can do to win support. They can promise to do things the voters like, or they can rally voters against an enemy, whether that enemy is internal (gangs, elementary school librarians, cultural Marxists) or external, like migrants, George Soros, or the federal government. Through no fault of their own—well, some fault—Republicans in Texas can’t offer to do much for folks, because they’ve had total control of the state for two decades. Anything they promise to fix raises the question of why it hasn’t been fixed already. Much easier to defend the state against perceived enemies, and immigrants are by far the most convenient one.
It’s a well Abbott has kept coming back to. Way back in the faraway mists of the summer of 2014, his first campaign for governor was helped along by an immigration crisis. Tens of thousands of “unaccompanied minors” started showing up on the Texas-Mexico border, sent by desperate parents in Central America seeking to protect them from gangs and hunger. The children mostly turned themselves in to the first Americans they saw. It was a terrible humanitarian crisis that posed difficult questions for the U.S. government. It was also politically useful for Republicans. Abbott certainly didn’t need the issue to win—he beat his challenger, Wendy Davis, by 20 points—but he ran hard on it, promising to spend $300 million on his own border security package.
In October of 2018, the year of Abbott’s first reelection, there was another big panic about the border, this time not about children but about “migrant caravans,” in which Central Americans who wanted to apply for asylum traveled to the U.S. together in an organized fashion, partly for protection and safety. Abbott didn’t have to lead the issue—the “migrant caravan,” whose status was breathlessly updated daily on cable news, was Donald Trump’s closing argument in the midterm election—but he again promised to bolster the border and spend even more money to do so.
Now, in 2022, Abbott is going for a third term. The number of apprehensions at the border was higher in 2021 than it’s been in two decades—although that’s largely because those arriving now willingly turn themselves in, requesting asylum. It remains a critical issue for Abbott: a quarter of registered voters, driven largely by self-identified Republicans, rank the border and immigration as their number one concern, and they trust Abbott to handle border security better than challenger Beto O’Rourke. But there’s a lot else capturing headlines now. The Dobbs decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion seems to have really fired up Democrats. The rolling panic about so-called critical race theory and wokeness in education has slowed down. Inflation, too, has slowed a bit, and gas prices are down. Polls show Democrats are energized and Republicans are feeling deflated.
So Abbott found a way to center the border in the news. In April, the governor sent a bus with about thirty asylum seekers (note: not undocumented immigrants, but folks who have requested legal asylum) to Washington, D.C. The bus stopped in front of Fox News’s Washington bureau, in case the point wasn’t clear. The stunt was accompanied by a second stunt: a vow that all vehicles crossing the border would get super-duper additional screening by the Texas Department of Public Safety. But that move cost businesses money and slowed supply chains, and it was quickly scrapped. The busing of refugees only cost Texas taxpayers money, and that was a small price to pay for positive coverage on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.
So Abbott vowed to send hundreds of buses to northern cities, adding New York and Chicago as destinations. Abbott’s first stunt was politically clever—and, as Texas Monthly’s Jack Herrera reported in April, it was in some ways a boon for the refugees themselves, who got a free ride deeper into the country to a place where charities were more free to help them. Arizona joined in.
As the competition to get the most headlines set in, the stunts got weirder and meaner. On September 1, Evarist Meléndez, who fled the dictatorship in Venezuela to seek asylum in the United States, told the Daily Beast that he boarded one of Abbott’s buses to New York because he was told it would stop regularly along the way—and because he desperately needed to get to Richmond, Virginia, where his cousins were waiting to help him. The bus only stopped at gas stations, however, because it needed to drop a load of people in New York City for waiting cameras. (Some migrants do disembark at gas stations, but others told the New York Post that a driver tried to prevent them from getting off.) Meléndez said he was told he could get from New York to Virginia for $17. At the end of the journey, he had not eaten in a day and had no money, no contacts, and no clue how to get to his family.
Last week, we reached peak cruelty. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has often showed a willingness to go further than Abbott, joined in. Florida, of course, does not share a border with Mexico. So DeSantis had refugees picked up in Texas and brought to a third location. Florida rounded up asylum seekers in San Antonio, offered jobs and shelter to them, and then put them on a plane to Martha’s Vineyard. Not to be bested, Abbott dropped off two busloads of predominantly Venezuelan refugees on Thursday in front of the Naval Observatory, where Vice President Kamala Harris lives. They were met, of course, by many cameras.
The lack of empathy for Venezuelans is striking. Venezuela is a socialist dictatorship that has been experiencing slow social collapse for the last decade. Things there are very bad. We know Abbott knows this, because he likes to make political hay of it. For sixty years, America has thrown its doors wide open for refugees from Communist dictatorships—such as Ted Cruz’s father, who fled Cuba. The Republican party has treated these asylum seekers as political refugees no matter why they decide to come.
On Thursday, Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado posted a video of an interview with a Venezuelan asylum applicant in El Paso. The young woman said she had begun her journey in Chile and traveled through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico before arriving in El Paso del Norte. (Rafael Cruz, the lucky duck, just took a boat to Key West.)
The appeal for Abbott of rubbing blue-state liberal noses in their own hypocrisy—whether or not that hypocrisy exists—is undeniable. It doesn’t matter if most buses are met by charitable organizations and are generally welcomed. Any complaint by elected officials in the North will be treated as proof that the governor of Texas has owned the libs, and owning the libs is now one of the primary products the Texas Republican party offers. Everybody here is now getting in on the act. On Monday, Cruz said he would introduce a bill to facilitate the busing of migrants to ten northeastern cities and three in California to alleviate the “suffering” of folks in South Texas who have had to put up with migrants.
The defining feature of Abbott’s administration has been the absence of empathy. Vindictiveness doesn’t seem to be the operative principle, exactly. It’s simply that Abbott doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of his actions on people at all, as if the governor’s mansion were inhabited by a particularly wonky machine-learning algorithm. All this will probably help Abbott win reelection. But it adds to the rather long list of folks, Texans and not, who have been treated like objects by the governor. Here’s hoping that the residents of the District of Columbia, New York, and Chicago prove kinder than we did.