DeSantis visits southern border – and seizes immigration issue in GOP race through executive power

CNN Newsource Pristine Villarreal

(CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to southern Arizona on Wednesday – his first visit to the US-Mexico border as a Republican presidential candidate – a day after taking credit for a pair of flights that recently carried migrants from Texas to California.

At a roundtable in Sierra Vista surrounded by law enforcement officials, including Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, a persistent critic of President Joe Biden’s border stance, DeSantis justified the flights by blaming California’s policies for incentivizing the flow of migrants into the US.

“These sanctuary jurisdictions are part of the reason we have this problem,” the governor said. “When they have to deal with some of the fruits of that, they suddenly become very, very upset with that.”

DeSantis has once again thrust himself into the country’s heated immigration debate with another operation transporting migrants to a blue jurisdiction. The DeSantis administration arranged for three dozen migrants to fly from El Paso to Sacramento in recent days, the Florida Department of Emergency Management acknowledged on Tuesday, leaving them at a local church upon arrival in the Golden State. While the Florida agency said these “illegal aliens” were relocated voluntarily, California officials have said the individuals were legal asylum-seekers who were misled with promises of jobs, clothing and shelter.

The highly choreographed flights, paid for with state funds, are an early demonstration of DeSantis’ position as a rare sitting elected leader among the GOP presidential contenders. Much of the Republican field is made up of people no longer in office who are limited in their response to the latest headlines or fascinations of voters. DeSantis commands the resources of the country’s third-largest state to react to Republican priorities and lay down new markers.

That reality is coming into focus less than two weeks after he announced his campaign for president. His visit to Arizona on Wednesday was arranged by his government office, though his campaign promoted coverage of it in advance. On Tuesday, social media accounts for his political operation circulated footage of DeSantis that day signing into law a bill targeting tech companies over privacy concerns. Earlier this week, DeSantis announced he had sent state officials to assist Iowa in the aftermath of the Davenport apartment collapse, a gesture that generated headlines for the Florida governor in the first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state.

DeSantis’ movements on immigration come as he seeks to drive a wedge between Republican voters and the rest of the field by promising to go further than any past executive, including former president Donald Trump, to end the flow of undocumented people into the country.

“As a Republican, I’ve been hearing about the southern border for probably my entire adult life,” DeSantis told a crowd in Greenville, South Carolina, on Friday. “And I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric over the years, and here’s what I would say: As president, I will be the one to finally bring this issue to a conclusion. We are going to shut the border down.”

So far, none of DeSantis’ rivals have remarked on the migrant flights that landed in California. Other Republicans in the race have seized on Biden’s immigration policies too, even though the days after the expiration of the Title 42 immigration policy last month saw a much narrower influx of migrants than expected.

At her town hall with CNN on Sunday, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recounted her recent trip to the southern border, telling the audience, “I went to 400 miles of that border. You’re not ready for what I saw.” She then laid out what she would do to address illegal immigration if elected to the White House, including a promise to defund so-called sanctuary cities and institute a national e-verify program to check the immigration status of workers.

Her comments, though, did not elicit nearly the same reaction from the left or the media as the private plane that had landed in Sacramento a day earlier – the first of two flights to California’s capital that DeSantis would later take credit for arranging.

Gabby Trejo, the executive director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a nonprofit collaboration of local religious congregations, said the transported migrants were “lied to and deceived,” while California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man” and threatened his Florida rival with kidnapping charges.

Ahead of DeSantis’ trip to Arizona, a Democratic National Committee spokesman called the recent migrant flights a “political stunt” and accused the Florida governor of “using human beings as political pawns to pander to the extreme MAGA Republican base.”

“Using taxpayer dollars to exploit desperate people, including children, for his own political gain tells you exactly what kind of president Ron DeSantis would be,” spokesman Ammar Moussa said.

The operation was similar in nature to two flights arranged in September by the DeSantis administration that carried migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Javier Salazar, a Democratic sheriff in Texas whose office has been investigating the transfer of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, said Monday he will file unspecified charges.

While the criticism has raised new legal questions about DeSantis’ controversial operation, it has also helped keep him in the spotlight even as the GOP presidential field grows. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum all announced their own bids for the White House this week.

DeSantis has an eight-figure budget to arrange more flights, and his administration recently contracted with three companies who are on standby, ready to deploy planes and buses. He has also sent 400 members of the Florida National Guard to Texas as well as representatives from state law enforcement to help patrol highways and waterways.

Beyond immigration, DeSantis has new powers to go after businesses for hosting drag shows that admit minors, doctors who provide gender-affirming treatments to children, and banks that decline to lend to gun manufacturers. Unlike Trump, Pence et al, DeSantis can also call lawmakers back into special session to tackle unanticipated topics, as he has done repeatedly over the past two years.

After signing a bill that allows him to remain governor while running for president, DeSantis has made clear he doesn’t intend to relent on wielding his executive powers as he campaigns for the White House. Before leaving his event Wednesday in Arizona, DeSantis suggested Florida may partner with like-minded governors and law enforcement agents on future border actions and hinted at more to come.

“In my role as governor,” DeSantis said in Sierra Vista, “I have a responsibility to be a leader.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

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