DeSantis Is Cracking Down on Immigration to Appeal to GOP Voters Ahead of 2024

As the 2024 presidential campaign season comes into view, Republican hopefuls have been jockeying to position themselves on the hard-right edge of U.S. politics.

Their jockeying is not surprising, given how successful far right politicians like Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as well as strategists such as Steve Bannon, have been at riling up Republican primary voters.

Nowhere has this pivot rightward been more apparent than in Florida.

Since the 2020 election, Florida’s position on a range of issues — from abortion to the minimum wage — has only gotten more uncompromising. On abortion, legislators are currently contemplating a Mississippi-modeled 15-week ban. And in response to the grassroots push for a minimum wage, legislators are debating whether to bar cities from being able to create their own local living wage requirements that are higher than the statewide minimum. GOP state senators are also crafting legislation designed to massively dilute an initiative, passed with more than 60 percent support in 2020, that puts the state on a path to reach a $15 per hour minimum wage by 2026. Meanwhile, pandering to Trump’s big lie about the last election having been stolen from him, the Florida Senate is debating a bill to create a special police force devoted exclusively to rooting out purported voter fraud.

In recent months, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators in the Sunshine State have begun vying with Texas to see which of the two red states can come up with the hardest-right policies, especially when it comes to immigration. Abbott, who is running for reelection later this year, has championed a Texas law encouraging undocumented immigrants to be arrested and prosecuted for trespassing, and has, over the past year, sent thousands of his state’s National Guard troops to the border.

Back in June 2019, DeSantis signed into law SB 168, which mandated that local law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal immigration authorities through enforcing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests, and which banned local authorities from declaring their cities to be “sanctuary cities” in the face of then-President Trump’s onslaught against immigrant communities.

Critics compared it to the notorious SB 1070, passed in Arizona in 2010, which unleashed sheriff’s deputies and police against undocumented immigrants and led to a huge upsurge both in deportations from the state and in undocumented immigrants relocating to other, less harsh, locales.

Late last year, the Florida Department of Children and Families announced new rules aimed at cracking down on organizations such as shelters and churches that offer assistance to children who have crossed the border to the U.S. unaccompanied by adults. The department threatened not to renew the licenses or the funding of these organizations, in the hopes of forcing them to turn away the youthful would-be asylees.

More recently, Florida Republicans have advanced a bill, HB 1355, which ostensibly cracks down on companies that provide transportation to migrants who enter the country without documentation, prohibiting the state and municipalities from doing business with these companies. The bill, which was introduced by State Rep. John Snyder, is reportedly also a priority for DeSantis.

HB 1355 is worded in such a catch-all manner that it would target churches, food pantries and any other nonprofits that try to offer humanitarian assistance to migrants. As a result, the bill has no buy-in from Democrats. It is being aggressively pushed by DeSantis seemingly as a way to shore up his right flank against rival candidates such as Donald Trump, or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as he prepares for a possible presidential bid.

On Thursday of last week, the House State Affairs Committee passed the bill — which, in addition to clamping down on those who offer assistance to undocumented immigrants and would-be-asylees, also requires local law enforcement agencies to enter into so-called 287(g) agreements with ICE — making it all but certain that it will soon be the law of the land in Florida.

Snyder denies that his bill targets undocumented children, but it’s worded in a way that puts the burden of proof for a person’s immigration status on that individual, including children. The ACLU reacted furiously, putting out a statement asserting:

The most concerning provision of this bill is that it shamelessly targets children and asylum seekers by banning private businesses and organizations from providing transportation to immigrants in Florida. This would lead to private entities requiring proof of immigration status from every child or adult who intends to utilize their transportation service, would open the door to unlawful interrogations, and would exacerbate racial profiling and discrimination.

This is the exact sort of discrimination that law enforcement agencies such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s department in Maricopa County, Arizona, perfected after SB 1070 was passed, leading to numerous lawsuits and an increasingly fraught and polarized political environment in the state. This eventually culminated in Arpaio being driven from power by a newly organized, immigrant-led coalition.

DeSantis, however, doesn’t seem to fear political blowback. At the moment, he is riding high in the polls in Florida, looks likely to win reelection in November, and has rapidly emerged as one of the only serious contenders who could block Trump from securing the GOP nomination in 2024 — although at the moment, he still remains far behind Trump in terms of his appeal to GOP primary voters.

The governor is proving adept at exploiting the sorts of wedge issues that most rile up the GOP base. His nativist policies will almost certainly end up harming young, vulnerable would-be asylees, without in any way addressing the huge, complex problems that lead so many young people to seek asylum in the first place. But despite this — or maybe because of it — he has enjoyed wild popularity among Republicans after pushing these policies. DeSantis is polling eight points ahead of his likely Democratic rival, one-time Gov. Charlie Crist, in the upcoming election. In fact, DeSantis’s positioning of Florida as a perceived counterpoint to the Biden administration and its immigration policies have helped him carve out a position as a standard-bearer for conservatives over the coming election cycles. I doubt he will relinquish that position any time soon.