Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit this past Wednesday for putting 50 asylum seekers from Colombia and Venezuela on two flights from Florida to the Massachusetts resort town of Martha’s Vineyard. Through an aide, the governor told Fox News he’d undertaken the move under Florida’s new “relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.”
"States like Massachusetts, New York, and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration through their designation as ‘sanctuary states’ and support for the Biden administration’s open border policies," the staffer added.
Neither DeSantis nor his staff offered specifics on the actual legal status of the migrants sent North, but as CBS News noted, “many migrants who cross the border illegally from Mexico are temporarily shielded from deportation after being freed by U.S. authorities to pursue asylum in immigration courts—as allowed under U.S law and international treaty—or released on humanitarian parole.”
Nonetheless, DeSantis’ shameless act is part of a trend. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently issued a press release noting that since April, his Operation Lone Star initiative—a political stunt masquerading as immigration policy—has sent more than 10,000 migrants, by the busload, from the border to Democrat-led “sanctuary cities.” In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has launched a similar program, which has been bussing migrants out of the state to Washington, D.C.
Abbott, Ducey, and DeSantis’ actions are one part jab at President Biden for what the Texas governor derides as the current administration’s “refusal to secure the border,” and one part Trumpian nativism for a Republican base that apparently thinks chartering two private jets is the way to own the libs on immigration. This is how anti-immigration MAGA Republican governors are currently getting their kicks—giving vulnerable immigrants one-way tickets from their states to “liberal” cities in a game of political one-upmanship, without regard for the human cost.
“Many don’t know where they are,” Massachusetts State Rep. Dylan Fernandes tweeted just after the migrants landed in Martha’s Vineyard. “They say they were told they would be given housing and jobs. Islanders were given no notice but are coming together as a community to support them.”
And just this morning, two buses full of migrants were dropped near Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, D.C.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, either.
In the early 1960s, another group of white supremacists, relying on the same racism-and-spite blueprint, and peddling the same lies about housing and opportunity, bussed vulnerable people—Black Americans living in the Jim Crow-era South—across the Mason-Dixon line to get back at Northern liberals involved in the civil rights movement. The Reverse Freedom Rides were a racist prank in the same mean-spirited, pitiless vein we’re seeing from MAGA immigration hardliners. And while Abbott has boasted that his “unprecedented” bussing plan is doing “what no state has done in American history to secure our border,” it’s hard to believe he hasn’t cribbed every note from those racist originators.
This past April, Abbott snarked that Texas would rent shuttle buses to take “illegal immigrants who have been dropped off by the Biden administration to Washington, D.C….where the Biden administration will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border.”
By August, the scheme was expanded to New York City, with Abbott offering immigrants his insincere hope that Mayor Eric Adams would deliver “on his promise of welcoming all migrants with open arms.” Weeks later, when Chicago was added to the list, Abbott snidely noted that “Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot loves to tout the responsibility of her city to welcome all regardless of legal status, and I look forward to seeing this responsibility in action.”
Abbott, DeSantis, and Ducey claim that lax federal immigration policy has allowed “dangerous cartels and deadly drugs to pour into the United States,” using classic xenophobic fear-mongering to suggest they had no choice but to bus migrants to cities where they’d get coastal elites’ attention. But it’s clear that what these Republican governors are really after is the chance to teach those who Abbott calls “liberal leaders up in the northeast” a lesson, one the Texas governor hopes will reveal Democrats’ self-righteous hypocrisy and cloaked NIMBYism on immigration.
If there’s any doubt that these are retaliatory efforts in the same mold, consider that Abbott refuses to “collaborate and cooperate” with officials in destination cities or U.S. Customs and Border Protection—reportedly neither making nor returning calls about details as basic as the arrival times of incoming buses.
Similarly, DeSantis, according to local officials, gave no notice to Massachusetts officials that immigrants would be arriving, a show of indifference to how their needs would be met. Gov. Abbott has touted his bussing program as voluntary, but some migrants report being told they could exit at cities along the way, only to be forced to remain onboard through Republican strongholds until their bus arrived at a targeted sanctuary city.
NYC Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Manuel Castro expressed “concern that [migrants] are being forced or intimidated to stay on the bus to arrive here in New York City,” and New York Immigration Coalition head Murad Awawdeh rebuked Abbott for “bussing people under misleading information to places that they do not want to go.”
An August Pew Stateline report found that after migrants began disembarking in Southern “red states along the route”—invoking the ire of local Republican officials—Abbott’s buses began bypassing some of those stops. That certainly seems to confirm Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s assertion that Abbott is using undocumented folks in a political game with the sole goal of “sowing chaos” in Democrat-led cities, mostly to make a case that the U.S. needs more hardline immigration policies.
It’s worth noting that Abbott has also previously promoted talking points from the Republican Party’s version of the Great Replacement Theory, a racist and xenophobia-steeped conspiracy theory which holds that global elites (which is often meant to invoke “the Jews”) are attempting to wipe out white Americans with Democrat-voting non-whites. In a 2019 fundraising letter, Abbott warned of the need to “DEFEND Texas,” cited "45,000 illegal immigrants” who had been arrested, and claimed “the national Democrat machine has made no secret of the fact that it hopes to ‘turn Texas blue’…Unless you and I want liberals to succeed in their plan to transform Texas—and our entire country—through illegal immigration, this is a message we MUST send.” The letter was sent to voters one day before the El Paso mass shooting of 22 people.
“I’ve got news for New York, I’ve got news for Washington D.C., as well as the rest of the country, we are not done yet. There are more cities on our list and we will keep those buses going,” Abbott has said, later adding, “We’re going to keep sending those buses up there until they fully understand and, most importantly, until the Biden administration does its job to enforce the laws concerning the border."
That sounds an awful lot like what Amis Gutheridge—a lawyer, former official in Strom Thurmond’s racist Dixiecrat party, and one of the white supremacist architects of the last migrant bussing program—said in 1962, when asked how long the project would run.
“We intend to continue it until those people in the majority tell those politicians we are through with this foolishness about civil rights and these things that you’re using for political purposes,” Gutheridge stated. “If it takes two weeks, two months, two years, five or 10 years, we will continue it until the white people up there…tell those politicians we are tired of using the American Negro for a pawn just for their votes.”
Gutheridge was talking about the Reverse Freedom Rides, a racist strategy devised by White Citizens Councils—collectives of white southern elites that included lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and legislators—who fronted as “respectable” segregationists. Known among Black folks as the “Uptown Klan” and “Country Club Klan,” White Citizens Councils cropped up throughout the South immediately following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision legally desegregating schools.
In 1961, the Freedom Rides saw interracial groups of activists travel to Southern cities by Greyhound buses to protest racial segregation in interstate travel, which had already been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), and Ralph Abernathy were among the original 13 riders organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), but that group would ultimately grow to include more than 400 volunteers.
In response to the Freedom Rides, which one Southern segregationist described as a movement “with the express purpose of violating our laws, fomenting confusion [and] trying to destroy 100 years of workable tradition and good relations between the races,” Gutheridge (who headed up Arkansas’s Little Rock White Citizens Council) and his fellow segregationists sought a way to exploit Black folks seeking better lives—and get back at white Northerners and other “outside agitators” perceived as threatening absolute white supremacy.
They came up with the Reverse Freedom Rides, a plan to transport thousands of Black folks—via bus, no less—from the South to the North. It was an effort conceived to remove “surplus” Black folks from the South for the collective sin of demanding full citizenship, to reveal the hypocrisy of white Northern liberalism, to redeem the South via both-sidesism, to embarrass Democratic politicians perceived to be complicit in the Black Civil Rights Movement, and to propagate a very Great Replacement-like theory that white Democrats were using Black folks for their votes.
"We want to see if northern politicians really love the Negro or whether they love his vote,” Gutheridge told one newspaper. “And we want to acquaint the North, which has been making the South a whipping boy with some Southern problems.”
Then as now, the plan used human beings who had already endured staggering trauma and tragedy as “political pawns” in a sick game. The Reverse Freedom Rides should today be regarded as rightwing proto-trolling, foreshadowing and shaping white conservative politicking today.
George Singelmann, aide to the viciously racist and notoriously corrupt New Orleans political boss Leander Perez, and the head of the city’s White Citizens Council, bragged about choosing cities based on spite.
“I selected the destinations,” Singelmann said, “on the basis of where I thought it would do the greatest amount of good to expose the hypocrisy of the community.”
Like Abbott, Singelmann picked New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. An Ohio town was reportedly chosen by Singelmann because a journalist hailing from there had “chided” him.
Despite President John F. Kennedy’s piss-poor record on racial justice, the then-widely held belief that the Kennedys were sympathetic to the cause of Black civil rights led Singelmann to choose a stop in Hyannis, Massachusetts, roughly four miles from the Kennedy summer compound. Historian Clive Webb, author of A Cheap Trafficking in Human Misery: The Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962, writes that at one point, “it was decided to transport African Americans to the hometowns of Northern liberal politicians in time for Christmas.”
Just like Abbott’s bussing program, the Reverse Freedom Rides were nominally voluntary, though they leaned heavily on trickery and lies.
The campaign targeted “the poorest of the poor” who were most desperate for a change in their lot—single moms, large families headed by men who had chronically struggled to find work, and young men recently released from prison. One recruitment notice promised: “Free Transportation plus $5.00 for Expenses to any Negro Man or Woman or Family (no limit to size) who desire to the Nation’s Capital, or any city in the north of their choosing.”
Warning Black readers of the ongoing “vicious hoax,” a 1961 Jet magazine item quoted a handbill that falsely claimed: “Upon arriving in New York you should apply…for benefits which are available to all new arrivals in the area. A nice apartment with private bathrooms, lights, gas, continuous hot and cold water, food, clothing, hospital care, doctors’ care, medical child care, services of a housekeeper and home nursing service, plus a cash living allowance, which depends on the size of the family.”
Webb writes that many ads promised plenty of available work and job assistance, sometimes claiming specific positions were being held especially for Black folks who made the trip. Amis Gutheridge created a poster that proclaimed, falsely, “President Kennedy’s brother [Edward Kennedy] assures you a grand reception in Massachusetts.” Perhaps most despicably, many of the folks who signed up were told that President Kennedy himself would be at the Hyannis stop to meet and greet them.
Ohio Gov. Otto Kerner condemned the campaign as “like Hitler and his Nazis forcing Jews out of Germany.” Webb quotes New York Sen. Kenneth Keating as calling the White Citizens Councils “cruel and callous.” JFK even managed to muster the minimal political courage needed to call the project a “cheap exercise,” but mostly evaded discussing the issue—much as he did for Black civil rights, overall.
But at the end of the day, the segregationists weren’t all wrong in calling out the North. Racism in hiring and housing, gross disparities in funding for Black neighborhoods and schools compared to white communities, and white terror were all present in so-called liberal Northern cities.
The Reverse Freedom Rides transported roughly 200 Black folks from South to North, falling far short of the thousands its creators had envisioned. And when an anticipated $100,000 in funding from the Louisiana state legislature was denied, the White Citizens Councils were forced to end the rides a few months shy of 1963.
Abbott and Ducey, conversely, have been able to rely on taxpayer dollars appropriated by their respective state legislatures, together spending more than $15 million on this cruel political theater. Florida’s legislature has allotted $12 million to DeSantis to fund migrant transport, allowing the governor to pay for enough private jet travel that his hardline immigration stance can’t possibly be questioned.
Democrats, meanwhile, unprepared for the influx and lacking the infrastructure of cities in border towns, have struggled to provide services and complained they lack sufficient resources, though they have committed to meet the need. Immigrant-focused nonprofits and other humanitarian groups have been indispensable.
In Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser asked for National Guard troops, a request the Pentagon denied, before last week declaring a state of emergency that will free up $10 million dollars.
An open letter from Mayor Adams just days ago stated the deluge of asylum seekers has nearly overwhelmed NYC’s safety net, and that “the city’s prior practices”—NYC’s right to shelter laws—“which never contemplated the bussing of thousands of people into New York City, must be reassessed.”
A statement from Mayor Lightfoot states that “Chicago welcomes hundreds of migrants every year to our city and provides much-needed assistance. Unfortunately, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is without any shame or humanity. But ever since he put these racist practices of expulsion in place, we have been working with our community partners to ready the city to receive these individuals.”
And a group of Democratic lawmakers from NYC, Chicago, and D.C. have appealed to the Department of Homeland Security for $50 million in funds to address the ever-rising need.
Obviously, a more substantive version of immigration reform is the only way to solve the big-picture immigration issue. But without bipartisan support, which is definitely not happening anytime soon, we get shenanigans from Abbott and Ducey, and this inadequate response.
And so it appears the playbook for racists, xenophobes, and white supremacists remains almost unchanged. From the banning of books to the refusal to acknowledge Black history—to, incredibly, the bussing of migrants—the cycles just repeat.
Here’s hoping we someday reach a point where the lessons of the last go-round put a halt to the cycle. Clearly, we remain far from that promised land.