Policy

DeSantis’s migrant flights could cost him Latino support at home

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) policy of shipping migrants from the border to left-leaning jurisdictions has been a winner in the GOP — but it could cost him at home with key Latino constituencies. 

The push by GOP governors to transport migrants from border states comes amid a surge in migration from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, a trio of Latin American countries with left-leaning authoritarian leaders. 

The three countries also have significant populations in Florida, where, along with other Latino voters, lawmakers and experts say DeSantis risks alienating a significant voting bloc. 

“These folks primarily coming from Venezuela are fleeing the Maduro regime. There’s a significant number of Venezuelans as well as the Cubans in Florida that fled similar dictatorships. And yet he’s turning his back on the victims of that regime. I think that will bite him,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who immigrated from the Dominican Republic as a boy, told The Hill. 

“I believe that the Latino community there will recognize that he’s turning his back on people that are refugees or seeking political asylum, and they will not be happy about that.” 

DeSantis is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from Democrat Charlie Crist, who was himself a former Republican Florida governor, in November. 

While DeSantis is a heavy favorite in that race, even a close election could hurt his image as a potential GOP 2024 frontrunner. 

Much of the criticism against DeSantis has focused on his political aspirations, particularly as he’s inserted his state into an issue originating on the U.S.-Mexico border, nearly 700 miles away from the Florida panhandle. 

“These are human beings. And you really don’t do that just to gain political clout. It’s really bad and he should suffer from what he has done…. He’s just showing how insensitive that he is towards people who are in desperate need, those people are leaving a dictatorship looking for freedom,” said Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.). 

“He’s under fire, you know, and he brought it on himself, scheming because he wants to be president of the United States.” 

DeSantis’s critics are also peeved that Florida is not only distant from the Mexico-U.S. border, but has historically benefited from Latin American immigration, especially from countries with authoritarian regimes, like Venezuela and Cuba. 

“That’s what makes it even worse, I think, is that the people of Florida and the Venezuelans and the Nicaraguans and the Cubans down there should know that he’s doing this basically to their communities,” said Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.). 

The Hill has reached out to DeSantis for comment.  

Still, experts say Latino voters are unlikely to collectively turn their backs on DeSantis over a single issue. 

“I think that some Latinos in other parts of Florida are very concerned about the treatment of Latinos for either because they’ve been discriminated against or they feel certain sensitivities and a certain sense of commonality with other immigrants. That will hurt [the GOP]. But the Latino vote in Florida is being driven by economics, foreign policy, and crime. I don’t see this incident changing this,” said Dario Moreno, a professor and Cuban politics expert at Florida International University. 

But Moreno added that mistreatment of Venezuelan migrants — people fleeing a regime that’s been a political punching bag for the GOP — risks blunting the party’s credibility on taking a tough stance against left-wing authoritarianism in Latin America. 

Moreno cited a long-term risk for Republicans in how “they talk about the home countries” if they don’t live up to foreign policy promises on places like Venezuela and Cuba. 

“It lays out a possible vulnerability, especially if all this foreign policy rhetoric is just empty promises,” he said. 

And immigrant Venezuelans are split in their reaction to Florida’s involvement in shipping migrants north. That split is in part based on politics, and in part based on a perception that DeSantis’s policy ultimately provides a free ride north, regardless of its political intent. 

“Most of them don’t know anyone [in the United States], and when they’re offered a free ticket, they accept it. Most [migrants] have told me, ‘If I’d been offered the same, I’d accept.’ But the question is whether they were deceived in that proposal,” said Liliana Rodríguez, a Venezuelan lawyer and asylee in the United States who works with the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Dominic and Fe En Venezuela, both Catholic charities. 

Rodríguez said that for Venezuelans in the United States, political alignments often dictate their view of DeSantis’s relocation policy. 

“I’ve heard the community is divided depending on what party each Venezuelan belongs to,” said Rodríguez. “I hear a lot from those who are on the Republican side, ‘if I were offered something for free, I’d take it.'” 

Democrats warn the short-term win could be a long-term loss for Republicans. 

“Mr. DeSantis will probably ride this — his anti-immigrant thing, his border thing — to victory as governor. But what are the implications short and long term for the Republican Party in Florida? That’s what you got to ask yourself,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) said. 

Correa pointed to Proposition 187, which was on the California ballot in 1994, with people in the state voting to back a prohibition on undocumented immigrants from using many state services, kicking off a state-run citizenship screening process. 

The proposition passed with an overwhelming margin and was backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican seeking reelection. The policy was blocked by courts before it ever went into effect, but some now blame it for pushing California Latinos away from the GOP. 

“The reaction to that was brutal. California — solidly Democrat. The Latinos, which about 40 percent of the population, became heavily Democratic. So what you’ve got to be careful with, what you’ve got to calculate is your short-term victory in that battle to become governor versus the long-term trend pattern of becoming the majority party with support from the Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, Latinx community,” Correa said. 

Democrats have a playbook to portray immigration hard-line Republicans as anti-immigrant — a playbook that’s turned California into the political crown jewel for the party, made Arizona competitive, but has yet to work in Texas. 

Florida Republicans say that playbook will fail against their border security and law and order arguments. 

“Floridians want individuals to follow our immigration laws and that’s why they support our Governor’s decision to shed light on the glaring hypocrisy of Democrat-run sanctuary cities,” Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) said in a statement to The Hill. 

Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba and whose South Florida district is nearly 70 percent Latino, agreed. 

“I think that the blame is going to be laid squarely on the shoulders of President Biden for his failed policies at the border,” he said. 

Pressed on whether the migrant dumps could alienate Cuban and Venezuelan American voters in Florida, Gimenez replied, “I just answered your question and we’re done.” 

Tags Adriano Espaillat Charlie Crist Ron DeSantis

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