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The disturbing precedent for busing migrants to other states

In the 19th century, Americans dumped poor migrants overseas. Now some governors are shipping them off to other states.

Migrants who boarded a bus in Texas listen to volunteers offering assistance after being dropped off within view of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Aug. 11. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The Republican governors of Texas and Arizona are sending thousands of migrants by bus to cities on the East Coast, especially New York City and D.C. Many of them are Venezuelan asylum seekers. Upon arriving at their destinations, they are discharged without money, food, shelter or work. Abandoned on the streets, homeless and without money, they have to seek relief from local religious and voluntary groups. The governors claim this policy is necessary because of the Biden administration’s inability to prevent the admission of undesirable foreigners at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is also an effort to embarrass pro-immigration politicians and create the appearance of chaos to justify cruel policies.

While the bus ride is one of the latest policies adopted in the southwestern states in response to the increased arrival of asylum seekers from Latin America, “migrant dumping” — expelling foreigners and subsequently abandoning them without consideration for their welfare and humanity — has long been a feature of American nativism. One precedent for the practice can be found in 19th-century Massachusetts.

The questions of who should be responsible for managing immigration and whether needy foreigners should be treated with compassion or turned back, rejected as a drain on the American community, were as politically contentious in the antebellum period as they are today. The arrival of severely impoverished Irish Catholic migrants fleeing famine in their homeland in the mid-19th century led the Massachusetts legislature to develop a policy for deporting indigent foreigners dependent on public relief to Europe.

This policy was stimulated by intense anti-Irish nativism that considered destitute Irish migrants public health threats and financial burdens. Between the 1830s and the 1880s, Massachusetts continuously expelled poor Irish men, women and children, sending them both out of state and overseas. Courts, politicians and shipping companies debated whether immigration was a state or federal affair. In practice, state governments managed immigration for most of these decades.

Throughout the implementation of the deportation policy, Massachusetts officials maintained that removals were conducted humanely. A legislative report on the enforcement of state immigration law in 1855 concluded that “there is no room for the operation of any improper motives or unreasonable severity.” The Massachusetts alien commissioners, who carried out the deportation law, declared that removed migrants were “properly provided with all the comforts that were necessary.”

In reality, however, Massachusetts’ deportation policy was far from humane. Driven by nativist sentiment, state officials aggressively removed Irish immigrants accommodated at charitable institutions to Britain and Ireland, sometimes by kidnapping them. Any semblance of due process was absent in these removals. The state even deported migrants with mental illness who were unable to communicate, by insisting that they consented to go home.

Massachusetts officials contended that a public officer would “attend personally to the removal of all feeble persons and the dangerous insane,” but little evidence supports this claim. Upon reaching the destination of deportation — normally Liverpool or an Irish port city such as Dublin or Cork — officials abandoned the deportees on the streets without money, food or clothes. As Francis Lousada, British Consul in Boston, observed: “It does not appear that any provision however slight — either of subsistence for a few days, or pecuniary aid to help them to return to their friends, is afforded.”

As one critic of the removal policy put it, a deportee, “unable to provide for himself, was let loose on the public streets, to take his chance of what Providence may do for him.” British observers who witnessed deportees’ arrival in Liverpool described the scene as “a woeful sight,” noticing “hunger stamped upon them.” The returned Irish shocked Liverpudlians for being “in a condition of extreme wretchedness.”

Without provisions for self-support, men and women expelled from Massachusetts wandered the streets of Britain and Ireland, entering local workhouses which provided shelter and food to people unable to support themselves financially. In 1859, when 16 Irish migrants returned from Boston and entered the workhouse in Liverpool, one of the charity officials noted that he “never saw a more miserable lot of people.” In 1869, a police officer in Cork found three Irish women with mental illness deported from the United States “wandering about the roads” and brought them to the city’s workhouse. The officer stated that the women were “half furnished” and “scarcely able to give any account of themselves” when he met them. “When landed here,” a charity official in Cork noted of deportees, “there was nothing for them but the workhouse.”

There are some fundamental differences between the deportation policy of 19th-century Massachusetts and the busing policy of Texas and Arizona today. Massachusetts deported the Irish back to their places of origin, but Texas and Arizona are sending migrants to other parts of the United States. Since the 19th century, administration of immigration has decisively transitioned to the federal level. Individual states have no power to conduct overseas deportation and can only relocate migrants domestically. Also, today’s categories of refugee and asylum seeker — and the United States’ legal obligation to them — did not exist in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, both policies involve similar forms of migrant dumping characterized by disregard for the welfare of people pushed to leave their home countries for similar reasons. These policies can also be regarded as attempts to cement American identity as White, Anglo and Christian by physically removing migrants who do not fit into these categories from the country.

Furthermore, in both cases, expulsion is a means of achieving political goals. The Texas and Arizona governors want to pressure the federal government to take stricter border control measures and to promote the Republican Party by embarrassing liberal Democratic politicians. The Massachusetts policy was aimed at forcing foreign governments to prevent the emigration of destitute people to the United States by demonstrating that such people could be returned. In these political games, migrants are pawns.

The history of the Massachusetts deportation policy shows that post-removal abandonment imposes profound physical and psychological hardships on migrants. The present policy of Texas and Arizona is creating situations similar to those that surrounded the Irish poor in the 19th century by meeting Venezuelans’ requests for help through asylum with the cruel practice of dumping. As the pace of arrivals in cities such as New York and Washington exceeds local charitable organizations’ financial and administrative capacity, the busing policy may undermine public support for asylum seekers, even in places inclined to be welcoming. The governors of Texas and Arizona may claim that they are addressing a migration crisis, but they are actually creating a humanitarian crisis.