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Migrant flights present how Trump, Stephen Miller reshaped immigration for GOP

While GOP governors are facing an uproar for sending migrants to blue states and cities, it is not the first time a Republican had suggested the tactic.

Years before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Florida’s Ron DeSantis (R) bused and flew migrants to liberal enclaves, senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller reportedly floated a similar strategy at the federal level, only to have the idea fizzle due to legal concerns.

But the moves by Abbott and DeSantis, which have been cheered by Miller, reflect how the former Trump adviser and the Trump White House more broadly still have their fingerprints all over the Republican Party’s approach to immigration.

“The playbook was established during the Trump administration,” said Robert Law, who served as chief of policy at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump administration.

“Those policies resonated with the American people, with border patrol agents and other law enforcement. It’s simply a passing of the baton, and these governors are recognizing this is the path forward to ensure we have a secure border,” added Law, who now works at the America First Policy Institute.

The issue of a surge in migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border was brought to the forefront over the past week as Abbott bused migrants from his state to Washington, D.C., where they were dropped off near Vice President Harris’s residence.

DeSantis, who does not govern a border state, joined in on the effort by organizing a flight to send roughly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy island near Cape Cod that is home to fewer than 20,000 people and known to be a favored destination for Democrats.

The move caused an uproar at the White House and among liberals who decried it as a political stunt that used human beings as props.

But the strategy was embraced by Miller, who was central in crafting immigration policy in the Trump White House and who reportedly discussed a plan in 2018 to release undocumented immigrants into Democrat-led sanctuary cities. The Washington Post reported the White House did not follow through on the idea because of concerns from agency officials. 

“Until the open border is closed & illegal immigrants swiftly deported, all border-crossers should be sent to the wealthiest Democrat neighborhoods—from Silicon Valley to the Hamptons—so that Biden Megadonors can enjoy the blessings of the policies they have so proudly championed,” Miller tweeted last Friday after the first flight of immigrants arrived at Martha’s Vineyard.

“If you’re upset because rich Democrats had to share their island resort with 50 illegals for 1 day, but not upset by Joe Biden’s policy of letting cartels criminally transport millions of illegals across our border & sell children into sexual slavery, then you have no conscience,” he added days later, doubling down on the idea.

Miller did not respond to a request for comment through his organization, America First Legal.

While some Republican strategists don’t believe DeSantis and Abbott were inspired directly by the idea first proposed during the Trump administration, they agreed that the latest controversy over the border has direct roots in the way Miller and the former president reshaped the conversation around immigration.

Trump ran for the White House in 2016 deploying incendiary rhetoric about the need to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and warning that other countries were sending rapists and drug dealers into the country. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the country in the wake of a mass shooting in Florida in 2016.

As a senior adviser to the president, Miller sought to enact numerous policies to cut the flow of immigrants into the U.S. He helped formulate the January 2017 executive order barring travelers from seven countries from entering the U.S.; he pushed for the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of migrant families; and he advocated for executive moves during the coronavirus pandemic to drastically limit immigration into the U.S.

“I think the legacy of enforcement of immigration, setting the tone on the debate of immigration, setting the tone of the idea that we should not continually allow the free migration and import of people into this country, that is certainly the legacy of Trump,” said one former Trump campaign adviser. “But I don’t think this is related.” 

Experts say that figures such as Miller, who leaned into nativist immigration policy and rhetoric, have fundamentally reshaped how the majority of Republicans approach immigration.

“It used to be true that Republicans supported legal immigration, at least rhetorically, but that has changed,” said Douglas Rivlin, director of communications for America’s Voice, a progressive immigration group.

“Legal immigration and legal status for immigrants is what they are trying to prevent, and they even label those in the U.S. legally as ‘illegals,’ like the people admitted to seek asylum DeSantis sent to Massachusetts,” Rivlin added.

He argued Republicans also see the decision to send migrants to blue states as part of a political strategy that has echoes of the 2018 midterms.

“In 2018, Republicans made the election all about migrant caravans, and in 2022 they are chartering their own buses and airplanes to recreate the caravans of ‘scary’ dark immigrants narrative to divide and distract,” Rivlin said. “It didn’t work well for Republicans in 2018 or 2020, but they do not have anything else, so they keep coming back to it.”

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