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Tyler Cowen: When immigration hypocrisy landed on Martha’s Vineyard


When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent public money to fly about 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the ostensible point — besides trolling and publicity, of course — was to show that immigrants are a burden on red-state resources. But his stunt reveals a political and cultural corruption far deeper than the one the governor may have intended.

Immigration DeSantis Flights

A woman, who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP)

First, it shows that the U.S. has a red-state elite that can no longer articulate or justify its own privileges — for instance, living in an exclusive community such as Martha’s Vineyard. Second, it shows that the conservative establishment has no real plan for fixing a broken U.S. immigration system.

Consider Martha’s Vineyard, which has a limited population of about 16,000 residents, with a summer population swelling to more than 100,000. Real estate is very expensive. And the island is strictly zoned, making it hard to build a lot of dense, low-cost housing.

Martha’s Vineyard is not my style — I would rather be in Los Angeles surrounded by El Salvadoran pupuserias; none are listed on the island — but I can see its attractions. I also concede that it is perfectly acceptable for people to decide to spend their hard-earned money on an expensive house in an exclusive neighborhood.

Yet that is not necessarily the defense that left-wing intellectuals make, in part because of their increasing emphasis on egalitarian rhetoric and income inequality. It would be quite surprising if the wealthy residents of Martha’s Vineyard, which has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1976, suddenly decided to embrace their inner Ayn Rand.

Vineyard residents were certainly very kind and hospitable to the new arrivals before they were moved to the mainland. But altruism can only go so far. A true commitment to egalitarianism would mean constructing more affordable housing, for example, making it possible for not just immigrants but lower-income people to live and work there.

Even before the modest number of Venezuelan arrivals, the island was known for its extreme income inequality. Wages there are below the Massachusetts average, and living expenses prohibitively expensive. Those realities stem from decisions about land use made by the island’s population. (I am OK with such community-supported zoning restrictions when they apply to very limited local areas, such as Martha’s Vineyard, and there are many options to look elsewhere. The problem arises when they start infesting a larger part of the U.S., as they have.)

Now consider the border towns of Texas. Most such towns are relatively cheap places to live and have a sizable lower-middle class. Whatever problems the flood of migrants across the Mexican border might create, at least it is cheaper for the state to pay their rent.

So Texas Gov. Greg Abbott should not be so quick to complain about border problems. Instead, he should recognize that immigration has been pretty good for Texas, at least large parts of it. These areas can do (and have done) well by focusing on services and amenities for people of lower incomes, supported by an ongoing population inflow.

Both sides in this debate are engaged in hypocritical rhetoric. Vineyard residents say they want to help but aren’t willing to make the changes on the local level that would be most helpful. Red-state politicians complain about what are, all things considered, their blessings.

The larger point, of course, is that the U.S. has too many arrivals living in “immigration limbo.” They can cross the border with an asylum claim and then live in the country while they wait for a slow and somewhat arbitrary judicial system to hear their claim. The U.S. would do better with a system of more ex ante immigration approvals, and fewer hanging cases ex post.

Most of the immigrants dumped by bus in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’s Washington residence, for example, hold uncertain legal status. That is a recipe for trouble, as they probably do not yet feel they have a stake in the country and in the meantime they cannot legally work. People with a fixed legal status, and a home and a job to boot, are less likely to take some random plane or bus ride offered by strangers.

Perhaps the presence of so many asylum seekers from Venezuela will convince some wealthy island residents of the failures of socialism. More than that, their journey should be all the evidence any American needs of the utter dysfunctionality of the U.S. immigration system.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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