During his first full week of campaigning for president, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis increasingly touted his record on immigration, arguing that he is the true conservative on the issue as he sought to distinguish himself from his top GOP rival, former President Donald Trump.
In a recent interview with conservative radio host Ben Shapiro, DeSantis argued that “this is a different guy than 2015, 2016.” And the governor’s decision to send more than 1,100 state law enforcement agents and National Guard members to Texas’ border with Mexico signals a willingness to run to Trump’s right on a subject long considered to be one of Trump’s core political messages.
“I think that’s probably the case,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a former top official in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration who founded the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down. “[Trump] accomplished far less than he could have. And that would be the case again.”
Immigration became a central part of the governor’s stump speech to voters this past week in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“I’ve been hearing complaints about [the southern border] for so long, and yet it’s worse than ever today,” DeSantis said Friday in Lexington, South Carolina. “We are going to shut the border down. We’re going to build a border wall. We’re going to stop mass migration and we are going to hold the Mexican drug cartels accountable for the carnage that they have unleashed on this country.”
Earlier in the week in Iowa, he went even further, touting his controversial migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard.
“You cannot have a normal functioning society if you do not have control over the territorial integrity of your country,” DeSantis said in Council Bluffs.
His rhetoric on immigration echoes some of the remarks from Trump during the early days of his 2016 presidential campaign, an issue that struck a chord with the Republican base and helped catapult the real estate mogul into the White House.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump famously said during his launch event in 2015. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
DeSantis’ remarks in Iowa referred to some migrants as “criminal aliens” and alleged some “are on the terror watchlist.” While he’s been careful not to mention Trump by name in his stump speech, he has highlighted a frustration with Trump’s inability to make good on his promises during his four-year term.
“I’ve heard a lot of promises about taking care of border security for years and years and years,” DeSantis said Thursday in Manchester, New Hampshire. “And what I can pledge you to is this: When I’m president, we will be the one to finally bring this issue to a conclusion.”
It appears to be part of a broader attempt to attack Trump from his right flank on culture war issues that could be crucial to attracting conservative voters, particularly in the Iowa caucuses.
DeSantis has already broken with Trump on issues such as the former president’s response to the Covid pandemic as well as the so-called war on woke. After Trump last week said he didn’t like the term “woke” and that many people couldn’t define it, DeSantis pushed back by insisting it meant “cultural Marxism” and that he saw being “woke” as “putting merit and achievement behind identity politics.” The spat comes after the candidates sparred over DeSantis’ ongoing feud with Disney.
“I do think, unfortunately, he’s decided to move left on some of these issues,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday in Clive, Iowa.
For its part, the Trump campaign has unleashed a series of increasingly blunt attacks on DeSantis since his campaign launch, including mocking the glitchy rollout on Twitter Spaces and even highlighting the inconsistent pronunciation of DeSantis’ last name.
“How can Ron DeSantis run anywhere when he can’t even run his own political operation correctly?” Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, said in a text message. “The fact is that President Trump built hundreds and hundreds of miles of wall, implemented the Remain in Mexico policy, stopped deadly drugs from flowing into communities, and fought transnational gangs and cartels from terrorizing Americans. President Trump has laid out a bold strategy for his second term, which includes destroying the drug cartels once and for all, halting the invasion of the Southern Border, ending catch-and-release, and eliminating asylum fraud.”
Trump still highlights immigration as a central theme on the trail. In 2015 and 2018, he called for ending birthright citizenship, and now he says he’ll sign an executive order to do it if re-elected president.
In a recently released campaign video, Trump used anti-immigrant rhetoric to underscore his reasoning for a ban on allowing children of immigrants lacking permanent legal status to automatically become citizens if they are born in the U.S.: “Who wants to have people who are very sick coming into our country? People from mental institutions coming into our country?”
DeSantis has been building his record on immigration for some time, culminating in the Florida Legislature recently passing a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration that critics have said is among the harshest in the nation. SB 1718 takes effect July 1, and its provisions include requiring hospitals that accept Medicaid to include a question on intake forms about the patient’s citizenship status. Also, the law increases penalties for human trafficking-related offenses and expands the use of E-Verify, the federal database employers can use to check a worker’s employment eligibility.
“There’s a sense of panic,” said Misael Santana, the pastor of a church in South Florida that ministers to immigrants lacking permanent legal status. “The people have more fear now than with Trump.”
Still, while the rightward shift on immigration may appeal to GOP primary voters, it will likely prove a tough sell to independents and moderate Democrats in a general election.
Yvette Cruz, the communications coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, told NBC News that migrant workers are already quitting and leaving the state, leading to worries about a worker shortage.
“Who’s going to do the work that no one else is doing?” she asked.
Even some conservative voters in South Florida are concerned. Homero Cruz is a Trump supporter who fully endorsed Trump’s immigration policies but says that DeSantis’ are “a big mistake.”
“I work in construction,” he said. “And there’s a lot of people that need work, and they’re willing to work. And obviously I cannot hire them because they don’t have a working permit. So we need to fix this problem.”
Another woman, Lesby, said in an interview that she was undocumented and asked to withhold her last name for fear of being deported. She said she paid taxes and hasn’t seen the rest of her family in Honduras in 16 years.
“We just want to work freely,” she said. “We don’t want to feel afraid that every time you leave the house something could happen.”
Still, she had decided to stay in Florida, despite the new immigration law.
“This is my state, my heart, where I planted roots,” she said. “And so we are going to keep fighting here.”