Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Climate, Refugees, and the Golden Rule


David Hernández


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by David Hernández. David Hernández is Associate Professor of Latinx Studies and Critical Race and Political Economy at Mount Holyoke College. An earlier version of this post appeared under the same title online and in-print in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Greenfield Recorder, January 23/24, 2024. 


Political hypocrisy in the United States has become the norm for our times. One shameful example of partisan duplicity cynically deployed to boost one's political scorecard is the persistent xenophobic vilification of migrants and asylum seekers arriving to the United States. The actions of political leaders include both rhetoric and policymaking. Two repeat offenders of anti-immigrant grandstanding are Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida.  

Photo of a statue of a man walking carrying a backpack.
Credit: Buscando Futuro / Looking for Future (2019). by Hector Dionicio Mendoza

Although migration and border politics have long been a fountain of political currency, gamesmanship with immigrant pawns splashed onto the scene in 2022 when DeSantis and his subordinates coerced fifty weary migrants—many who claimed they were misled— from Texas to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. 

 Jelani Cobb decried the stunt succinctly in the New Yorker, calling the feat an exercise in "calcified cruelty, malignant politics, and questionable legality." That sounds about right.  

Where DeSantis chases political spectacle, Governor Abbott pursues volume. According to Abbott's website, his steady flow of buses has relocated 100,000 lawful asylum seekers—yes, they are lawful migrants pursuing a form of relief protected by U.S. and international law—to so-called sanctuary cities (including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and others) since April 2022. They are often stranded without notice to their unsuspecting hosts. Abbott is no stranger to political charade either—recall on Christmas Eve 2022, Abbott dumped 130 migrants in freezing weather at the Washington D.C. residence of Vice President Kamala Harris.  

The anti-immigrant sentiment does not stop with asylum seekers. Texas passed the most punitive state legislation against migrants in a decade—permitting Texas authorities to apprehend suspected undocumented migrants in March 2024 and empowering local judges (not immigration judges) to determine migrants' status and deportability, a process normally reserved for federal jurisdiction. Texas's clash with federal authorities also includes its deployment of state military and other physical barriers at the border and in international waters on the Río Grande river. This month, three migrants (incl. two children) drowned on Abbott’s watch, while Texas authorities blocked Border Patrol access to the Río Grande.  

Florida's legislation, according to the governor's website, criminalizes hiring and transporting undocumented migrants and invalidates lawful forms of migrant identification when entering Florida. Interior domestic policies such as Florida's expand the scale of its target from immigrants in the state to friends and family too by criminalizing day-to-day interactions with migrants. In addition, both states have passed domestic health and educational policies aimed at harming LGBTQ+ adults and children, and obscuring histories of racism against African Americans in school textbooks and other curricular tools.  

The central contradiction of Abbott's and DeSantis's manipulation of asylum seekers and their sustained media performances is that both states are regions of consistent need, vulnerability, and displacement among their own residents—not just weary asylum seekers. Texas and Florida sit at the crossroads of both migrant life and climate catastrophe. These aren't one-off crises or anomalies, but persistent, practically year-round dynamics, draining state and federal resources. At times, climate disaster and asylum merge, such as last year when Abbott bused 37 migrants, including 15 children and a newborn to Los Angeles during tropical storm Hilary, when California had declared an unprecedented state of emergency. 

As we have witnessed in the Trump era, naked hypocrisy among politicians is more of an intra-partisan competition than an individual behavioral flaw. Abbott and DeSantis should wonder if their chickens will come home to roost. The governors ought to reconsider their malicious treatment of displaced and needy persons as dangerous winter weather begins and record heat awaits, the latter dovetailing with the annual hurricane season (June 1 to November 30). In 2022, Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 storm and the deadliest in the United States in almost 90 years, slammed Florida and the Southeast. Two and one half million people were placed under evacuation orders.  

Nationally speaking, the United States experiences, seasonally and unpredictably, wild fires, extreme heat or cold (2023 was the hottest year on record), and brutal storms on U.S. coasts and in the interior. Few know that the United States was ranked 5th in the world in 2020 and 6th at the end of 2022 for persons "living in internal displacement" as a result of weather and geophysical disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva. As well, Texas ranks #1 of the fifty states in weather related fatalities over the last nine years.  

I doubt that the governors of California or New York will trick climate-displaced Texans or Floridians into a sudden plane or bus ride to Oklahoma City or Colorado Springs, or Knoxville, Tennessee, or some other anti-woke city. But what if taxpayers suffer compassion fatigue or leaders deploy resources reluctantly, as we saw in Puerto Rico for Hurricane María? What if, fearing their own treatment, thousands of migrant laborers—documented and undocumented storm chasers —do not relocate to storm-ravaged cities in order to rebuild them, such as New Orleans after Katrina? Major insurance providers have already made their risk calculations, and four have pulled out of Florida (and two from California) in the past year. What price will Abbott and DeSantis exact on their state residents for flouting the "golden rule?" 

Cynical and reckless endangerment of asylum seekers, including children, for political gain is repulsive and should be disqualifying for political leadership. The global pandemic taught us that collective concern for neighbors and mutual aid are principal mechanisms for maintaining the public's welfare. Abbott and DeSantis, who ration safety and prey on vulnerable migrants, are eroding the public trust necessary for their states' well-being. There are plenty of rationales guiding humanitarian relief, including neighborly concern, religious beliefs, or reciprocal relationships. I suggest we start with plain decency. That should be enough.  


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

D. Hernández. (2024) Climate, Refugees, and the Golden Rule . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/02/climate-refugees-and-golden-rule. Accessed on: 17/04/2024


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