DeSantis makes surprise trip to border as he works to outflank Trump on right, immigration

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Federal officials are reporting a big decline in illegal border crossings, but it's still a potent political issue that Gov. Ron DeSantis leaned into Wednesday by convening law enforcement officials for a roundtable discussion near the border.

Fresh off launching his presidential campaign, DeSantis is emphasizing immigration issues as he works to win over supporters of former President Donald Trump, whose hardline immigration approach is central to his political persona.

DeSantis' surprise visit to the southern border came a few days after his administration orchestrated another round of migrant flights.

The governor defended the migrant flights to Sacramento Wednesday, discussing the issue for the first time. He noted support from the GOP-controlled legislature for the transport program and said a budget surplus in Florida enabled the state to help Texas authorities.

DeSantis said so-called "sanctuary" jurisdictions – California passed a "sanctuary state" law that limits cooperation with immigration authorities – should be responsible for helping migrants.

“These sanctuary jurisdictions are part of the reason we have this problem," DeSantis said, adding: "That’s the policies they’ve (staked) out and then what? When they have to deal with some of the fruits of that they all of a sudden become very, very upset about that.”

The recent migrant flights drew intense criticism from California officials, who say the migrants were misled and are threatening legal action, and there also has been a growing backlash to a restrictive immigration bill the governor recently signed into law, with concerns about workers fleeing the state and businesses struggling to replace them.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd of supporters during a campaign stop on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. DeSantis made a surprise visit to the southern border and held an immigration roundtable discussion Wednesday.

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DeSantis continues to highlight the immigration issue, though. It was central to Trump's winning campaign in 2016 and has remained one of the biggest issues motivating GOP voters.

DeSantis has tried to undercut Trump on immigration, saying he "wanted to amnesty 2 million illegal aliens in 2018 when he was president." The comments refer to legislation providing legal status to so-called "dreamers," undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Politifact rated DeSantis' claim mostly true. 

Trump has countered that DeSantis also supported the measure and is engaged in a "a deceptive attempt to distract voters from his presidential campaign launch meltdown."

Meanwhile, DeSantis has tried to position himself as a hawk on immigration issues.

The governor announced last month that Florida forces would help police the border, and his office put out an update Wednesday about "Operation Lone Star."

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There currently are more than 400 members of the Florida National Guard deployed at the border, along with 101 Florida Highway Patrol troopers, 30 Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agents with nine support team member and 20 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers with two mechanics.

DeSantis' immigration roundtable Wednesday in Sierra Vista, AZ included officials from Arizona and Florida, including Attorney General Ashley Moody, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey.

“We’re here at ground zero," DeSantis said. "Part of the reason we’re here is this is not a problem that only affects border counties… we believe this is a crisis, yes it’s a border crisis but it’s really an American crisis.”

The Department of Homeland Security reported this week that illegal border crossings are down 70% from record highs earlier in the year, according to ABC News.

Asked whether Florida should be sending resources to Texas when the state has it's own issues with migrants arriving by boat from Haiti and Cuba, DeSantis noted the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for patrolling those waters and said state resources have helped those efforts.

"If you look at the number of boats that were coming before we got engaged to help the Coast Guard it's gone down dramatically as a result," he said.