Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
High-profile Republican governors have been busing undocumented immigrants to northern states such as New York by the thousands for months now, cynically using them to make a political point.
But it was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who stole the headlines recently when he brazenly took credit for flying dozens of Venezuelan asylum-seekers from Texas, where they crossed the border, to, of all places, the exclusive enclave of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. The migrants, misled by tales of jobs and services awaiting them, were promptly abandoned.
It was a despicable tactic, made all the more appalling by the fact that Florida has undocumented migrants of its own. But they tend to be Cubans — and Florida's Cuban population is a crucial Republican constituency. So DeSantis had his people go to Texas on the flimsy pretext that they were "intercepting" the Venezuelans before they headed to ... Florida? DeSantis has been gleeful about what he considers the cleverness of his tactic, stranding human beings — including young children — in a small enclave that had little in the way of services or infrastructure.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also no slouch when it comes to inhumane tactics, recently bused 500 migrants to Chicago, overwhelming services there. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker's response was to issue a disaster declaration to provide the funds needed for emergency services and note that "while other states may be treating these vulnerable families as pawns, here in Illinois, we are treating them as people."
Enough. It's long past time to stop weaponizing human beings desperately seeking freedom and opportunity. There are ample signs that an overstressed, outdated, underperforming immigration system is coming apart at the seams even as obvious reforms fall victim to gamesmanship. The gubernatorial stunts aren't helpful, but they increase the glare of a broken immigration system.
This August, the U.S. hit a new and regrettable milestone. By August, officials had arrested more than two million immigrants at the southwestern border alone in the previous year, an unprecedented pace. The number of removals, which topped 1.3 million, also was more than any year prior, according to Customs and Border Protection data. That's hardly evidence of the "open border" Republicans are so fond of referencing. But it is evidence that this system is cracking under the strain.
Several factors have contributed and could change the nature of the comprehensive reform needed. The migration hot spots have shifted. The number of Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans is rising fast. Migrants from those nations apprehended at the border nearly equaled those from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, whose numbers are trending downward. The reason? Communist governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua are failing, U.S. officials said, driving waves of those attempting to escape.
There are other factors at work here. Smuggling humans into the U.S. has become a big moneymaker. Once the province of unorganized bands of "coyotes" who were interested simply in making a bit of cash by shepherding migrants across the border, human trafficking has been taken over by organized crime, often by the same violent cartels that control much of the drug trade.
All this has vastly increased the human toll of misery inflicted on vulnerable, easily exploited migrants in search of a better life. Not content with collecting a fee for bringing them over, these organized groups now engage systematically in extortion and torture, often in the U.S.
With the indomitable spirit that has marked immigrants since the beginning of this nation, some are managing to find new lives even after being deliberately stranded by elected officials. After a bus sent by Abbott dumped him in Washington, D.C., Lever Alejos, 29, of Venezuela, rallied. He told a New York Times reporter that "I have nothing. But I have the will to work and succeed." After a couple of months in a homeless shelter, Alejos is working and saving to buy a car and rent an apartment. "There is so much opportunity here," he told the reporter. "You just have to take advantage of it."
When will this country recognize it needs the Alejoses of this world, their fire and drive? Businesses across this country are starved for workers. The unemployment rate is so low in Minnesota it is throttling our economy.
Of course, we can never admit all who want to come to this country. The U.S. needs strong, well-protected borders and ports, with systems secure enough to repel drug cartels, human traffickers and others who would exploit this country's generosity.
But that must be accompanied by more sensible levels of legal migration that create an efficient, relatively fast-moving process for entry and a humane policy for bringing out of the shadows those who have proved their merit. To do less is to invite smugglers and lawbreakers. We should reopen the doors to the best and brightest young people of the world in struggling countries who dream of college in the U.S.
On the first day of his term, President Joe Biden proposed a comprehensive plan that would pair smart border controls and protections for border communities with streamlined systems that would speed legal entry; provide a way for those immigrants already here to earn their citizenship; clear out visa backlogs, and make it possible for employers to hire for specialized skills. The proposal would crack down on organized crime and get needed resources to address backlogs in immigration courts while also addressing the root causes of migration.
All of it is fairly common sense, and pieces of it have been debated and voted on over the years. Biden's plan may not be everything either side could hope for, but after 36 years it's time to stop the destructive, internecine war that some states are waging on others and start embracing solutions.