Editorial: Congressional inaction allowed DeSantis to exploit desperate migrants

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The United States models itself as a country of immigrants, a great melting pot. Throughout its history it has welcomed people fleeing religious and political persecution, those in fear of war or violence or starvation, and those seeking lives of freedom and opportunity.

As much as this country is a physical state with defined borders, it is also an idea — a shining city on a hill, a beacon of liberty, a golden door. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, says Lady Liberty as she greets new arrivals in New York Harbor.

But there’s always been the other side of America. Protective, fearful, defensive. America should be for Americans, they say, as if a child has a choice as to where he or she is born. Close the golden door, extinguish the beacon, pull up the ladder to those grasping at its bottom rungs. Build the wall.

These two oppositional forces are not new — not at all — but the desperate people massing at our doorstep throughout the last decade have amplified that division. Those already inside the country illegally and who want to be a part of this country’s future wonder if America wants them, or only their labor.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t the first American official to use vulnerable migrants as pawns for selfish political grandstanding. Stoking fear about immigrants is a nativist tale as old as time and DeSantis is simply the latest to wield that cudgel.

By sending a group of Venezuelans refugees to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, reportedly without their consent and possibly in violation of the law, DeSantis focused the nation’s attention on immigration.

Will it stir a great national conversation on the issue? Honestly, it should. But will such a debate lead to rational, workable and effective solutions? That’s a steep hill to climb, for while both Republicans and Democrats agree something should be done, they disagree sharply about what.

Democrats want the nation to be welcoming of migrants, to formalize the status of the estimated 10 million undocumented people here, to provide a pathway for citizenship and expand visa programs that allow foreign nationals to come here for employment.

In contrast, Republicans want to wall off the Southern border to halt migration from Central and South America, reduce the numbers of available visas and, per the party’s 2016 platform, reduce the number of naturalized citizens the country accepts each year.

That’s a stark change from only 15 years ago, when President George W. Bush proposed an immigration compromise that would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country, greatly expanded access for guest workers and significantly expanded border security measures through the deployment of new technology and the hiring of tens of thousands of new border patrol officers.

Virginia played a pivotal role in scuttling that plan. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor helped champion the president’s plan, only for voters in the 7th District Republican primary to toss him out of Congress. His opponent, Dave Brat, smeared the proposal as “amnesty for illegals.”

Expecting President Joe Biden to solve this problem himself is absurd, as it was to ask his predecessors to do so. The failure here is Congress, which needs to take responsibility for the issue and draft comprehensive legislation that addresses undocumented immigrants living here, provides the resources to care for and thoughtfully address migrants coming here, that expands visa programs for guest workers and, yes, strengthens border security.

But it should be a policy rooted in compassion and in the belief that this nation should be a refuge from oppression, violence and fear. Immigrants have been instrumental to this country’s growth and prosperity, our defense and our endurance. To demonize them — as Americans throughout history have gleefully done — is to ignore that they are essential threads in the national fabric.

To treat desperate people so cruelly, as DeSantis did, is reprehensible. But until Congress does its job, there will be more like him who follow and who will do worse.