A popular political souvenir in Florida currently is a range of merchandise advertising the services of a non-existent travel company called DeSantis Airlines.
T-shirts, tumblers and car decals bear the motto “Bringing the border to you,” a mocking commemoration of the time last year when Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, lured a boatload of Venezuelan asylum seekers out of two charterers planes to Texas with false promises of work and lodging in Boston, then promptly unloaded them on Martha’s Vineyard.
The stunt, paid for by Florida taxpayers, was branded as cruel and ruthless by analysts, political opponents and immigration advocates, and lauded by DeSantis supporters as another successful liberal “property.”
Related: How Florida’s Republican Supermajority Handed Unfettered Power to Ron DeSantis
But beyond the politically charged rhetoric, the episode was further proof that immigration and the demonization of immigrants are top priorities for DeSantis as he prepares his likely run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
That might seem like a trivia, given that your state is so dependent on immigrant labor and that nearly 3 million workers, representing more than a quarter of Florida’s entire workforce, are foreign-born, according to the American Immigration Council . They fill vital jobs for Florida’s major dollar-generating industries, including agriculture, construction, tourism, and transportation.
However, to observers of DeSantis’s “anti-wake-up” world, where liberalism is the enemy and far-right ideology eclipses all else, that comes as no surprise.
“It’s a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, a game of raising his national profile by using this issue to mobilize the grassroots and get his bites on Fox News,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of immigrant advocacy organization America’s Voice.
“He is using immigration as a tool to create anger, a very motivating emotion, and raise his national profile. It is about amplifying narratives of chaos, fear and, indeed, hatred, which hurts not only our country’s politics, but also the political advancement of the issue.”
Supporters in Florida are angered by the governor’s progressively tough stance on a catalog of legislative measures that may not have attracted the same publicity as Massachusetts flight headlines, but signal the priorities and policies he was likely to pursue from the White House.
DeSantis has a long history of wrangling with the Biden administration across the southern border and lawsuits against federal immigration policies.
Closer to home, he and his willing Republican-dominated legislature passed a law in 2019 banning sanctuary cities that he believed protected migrants from national immigration laws. That case is still tied in the appellate court after a federal judge declared it unconstitutional.
Last year, DeSantis signed into law a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to fully implement federal policies and prevent local authorities from contracting with companies that have transported undocumented aliens.
But in the weeks following his landslide re-election in November, the Florida governor has indeed let loose on immigration, expanding his migrant removal program, then unveiling measures heralded as his response to the “Biden border crisis” that many they consider its most extreme package.
One part, the elimination of state tuition fees for undocumented students, put him at odds with his own party lieutenant governor Jeanette Nuñez, who sponsored the 2014 bill introducing tuition discounts, and his Republican predecessor Rick Scott who signed it. While Scott said she would do it again, the ever faithful Nuñez reversed her position.
Florida business leaders are also concerned about a new requirement to use the internet-based E-Verify employment tracking system to deny jobs to the undocumented, while the undocumented would be denied cards identity cards and driving licenses.
Another alarming trend, reported this week by the New York Times, would require hospitals to establish and report a patient’s immigration status to the state.
Tessa Petit, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, is concerned about the proposed criminalization and lengthy prison sentences for anyone who knowingly “hosts or transports” an undocumented alien. She said she could hit parents whose child invites an undocumented classmate to their birthday party, or a caregiver who brought an undocumented senior to a doctor’s appointment.
“It is an exaggeration by the government. He’s using a protective facade for the government and fascism, controlling every part of everyone’s life,” she said.
The effect of DeSantis’ immigration crackdown has been chilling. Rubén Ortiz, a DeLand pastor whose congregation is almost exclusively from South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, says she is “terrified.”
“I get calls saying, ‘Pastor, can you find someone to take care of our children if we were to be deported?’ Others are trying to return to their own country,” she said.
“They can call us if they have some incident with the police, a traffic stop or whatever, and now they say, ‘Will the future be worse?’ It’s not just going to school with the kids, it’s if we get sick, and it’s mandatory for hospitals to check legal status.
“People basically live in the shadows. These people are just looking for a better life, a better place to live. They’ve had a horrible trip to the US before, they’re established and thriving right now. This is repeating their nightmare and affecting their ability to dream.”
The economic impact of DeSantis’ policies is also a concern for Cárdenas, of America’s Voice.
“Immigrants contribute approximately $600 million in state and local tax dollars, 36% of businesses are owned by immigrants, so once the business community starts thinking about the implications of what DeSantis is proposing, it will open up the eyes,” he said.
“It’s really out of step with our economic needs, which is a major issue for every voter.”
He pointed to the midterm rejection of Trump-style immigration extremism as a cautionary tale to DeSantis. “The majority of the electorate supports immigration and a progressive view when it comes to politics. They are Americans who recognize the important place immigrants hold in our economy, want us to have a compassionate system, and truly value our heritage as a nation of immigrants.
“It’s such a disservice to the issues Americans care about when we have these kinds of leaders that they’re amplifying again not only hateful rhetoric that hurts immigrants, but it’s also not in our nation’s best interest.”
Petit, meanwhile, is confident DeSantis will try to project his agenda onto the national stage, noting that he won reelection for governor by 19 points last year and that his Republican legislative majority in Florida left him for all intents and purposes. untouchable.
“It’s gotten to the point where there’s a part of its governance that’s manifesting itself because it’s gained too much power. He feels unstoppable,” she said.
“That’s what his government might look like in 2024 for the United States if he gets elected, so people need to pay attention to what he’s doing.”
DeSantis, who previously dispatched Florida law enforcement officials to help patrol the U.S. southern border with Mexico, continues to portray the immigration debate as a national crisis. He says the nearly 11,000 migrants repatriated from his state since last August are a consequence of the Biden administration’s “loss of control” of the country’s borders.
“As Biden’s border crisis continues unabated, my administration is working hard to protect our communities and businesses from the many threats posed by illegal immigration,” he said in a statement announcing his latest crackdown in February .
Petit isn’t buying it and sees DeSantis’ actions as a performance designed to capture Trump’s hardline base for his presidential ambitions.
“I think he realized that when Trump was president people wanted to see a strong presidency, and that Trump was a bully excited everyone,” she said.
“He wants to bully, but the danger is that he is much more sneaky. He’s doing the same things in a much more subtle way and using immigrants as pawns to boost his popularity.