There are a lot of questions to be asked about Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s disgraceful stunt last week, tricking, kidnapping, and stranding a group of migrants in Martha’s Vineyard. One of the most important is the role in the scheme played by officers with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In the press so far, the episode has largely, and with good reason, been framed around the loathsome figure of DeSantis. The governor, having built his planned political ascent on pretending to be Donald Trump to the point of shamelessly copying his mannerisms, clearly saw this as a way to prove he could be just as cruelly racist as the former president, whose administration infamously stole migrant children from their parents and tried to rehouse them with American families. And sure enough, the lawsuit filed by the migrants names and details the actions of only DeSantis and his cronies.
But then what about the words of Boston immigration lawyer Rachel Self, who briefed the press about what had happened to the migrants after meeting with them? Self told reporters that DHS agents had processed the migrants before boarding the chartered planes that took them to Massachusetts, that they’d “listed falsified addresses on the migrants’ paperwork,” naming “random homeless shelters all across the country” as their mailing addresses even when told they had no homes in the United States, and that the agents told the migrants they must check in with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices closest to those addresses within only a few days. The fact that those shelters were, according to Self, as far afield as Washington and Florida suggests they were deliberately being set up to fail and be deported.
“There is no other reason to list as someone’s mailing address a homeless shelter in Tacoma, Washington, when they ship him to Massachusetts,” a clearly livid Self had said.
Self’s charges were backed up by Elizabeth Ricci, a Tallahassee immigration lawyer, who insisted to the Orlando Sentinel that ICE “likely conspired with the governor’s office to pull off the stunt.”
“It couldn’t have been done without their direct involvement,” Ricci alleged.
If this is true, it’s not only doubly scandalous, but critically important to know as authorities work to ensure some accountability, and to prevent this kind of thing from being tried again. Unlike ladder-climbing politicians like DeSantis, immigration officers are, at least in theory, meant to be neutral actors simply enforcing the law — not immigration hawks working with unscrupulous lowlifes to deliberately sabotage the applications of asylum seekers.
It would be yet one more data point hinting at an alarming politicization of the DHS bureaucracy, particularly its immigration divisions. Under Trump, agencies like ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made headlines for spying on anti-Trump protesters and putting journalists, activists, and immigration attorneys through extra screening, as well as putting out menacing videos like this one that showed militarized CPB officers training to put down civil unrest, and calling for the arrest of politicians from sanctuary cities.
This has come at the same time as revelations that the agencies have quietly assumed vast domestic surveillance powers. For years, ICE has been partnering with the data brokers who trade in the wide variety of intimate information the private sector collects on hundreds of millions of Americans, from addresses, phone numbers, and Department of Motor Vehicles records, to the geolocation data our phones are constantly pinging out. Best of all for these agencies, they can do it without a warrant, since they’re merely customers paying to access data that’s commercially available to anyone. Just last year, we learned that border officials are collecting and storing the content from as many as ten thousand electronic devices each year.
Given all this, it’s especially vital we find out for sure if Self’s charges are correct, that DHS agents really did abuse their power to help an anti-immigration official carry out what she calls a “sadistic lie” to fraudulently deport a group of asylum seekers.
Sadly, it would not be surprising. DHS agents and officials have already been variously accused of similar deceit and abuse. Human Rights Watch last year documented accusations against DHS officials in Del Rio, Texas, that they told migrants they’d be flown elsewhere in the United States for processing before deporting them to their home countries. A congressman accused DHS of putting out misleading photos showing processing facilities with few unaccompanied minors, when they had really just moved them to tents next door that were operated by different agencies. Its agents have been repeatedly accused of falsifying asylum seekers’ testimonies to undermine their cases.
The fact that a power-hungry politician would jeopardize desperate people’s hopes for escaping violence so that he could appeal to cruelty and hatred is disgusting, but perhaps not so surprising. But if he was being helped by the government agents of a sprawling bureaucracy responsible for dispassionately enforcing immigration law, we need to know if it’s true, and how far up it goes — and to aggressively clean house of such elements.