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DeSantis’s Election Strategy? Competing With Trump to Be Crueler to Migrants.

DeSantis and Trump’s efforts to outdo each other on anti-immigrant rhetoric could stoke racist violence, critics warn.

Republican 2024 presidential hopeful and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a press conference on June 6, 2023, in Wildwood, Florida, after signing a bill to protect the digital rights of Floridians.

In an effort to portray himself as the harsher punisher of migrants when compared to Donald Trump, 2024 presidential hopeful and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rolled out a border policy platform on Monday that would require the mass incarceration of migrants, including families and children, in an expanded version of an immigration prison system that is notorious for human rights violations.

Advocates for immigration reform say the DeSantis plan is both practically unworkable and imbued with dangerous rhetoric that threatens to incite white nationalist violence. It’s also a familiar wish list of anti-immigrant policies that serve as red meat for the far right but would face legal and political challenges in practice, such as the deployment of military forces to the southern border and ending the tradition of birthright citizenship that has long been guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

DeSantis was the first GOP governor to send law enforcement and National Guard troops from his home state of Florida to the border in Texas, one of several anti-immigrant stunts pulled by Republican governors looking for attention. He said on Monday that other states should be allowed by the federal government to do the same.

Both DeSantis and Trump propose to end the nation’s long tradition of granting citizenship to people born on U.S. soil in order to prevent people with undocumented parents from voting and enjoying equal rights before the law. Coupled with violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, such proposals are dog whistles for the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory that now shapes the immigration debate on the right.

Speaking near the border in Texas on Monday, DeSantis agreed with an audience member that migration from another country to the U.S. is an “act of war” and pledged to “stop the invasion” while invoking the bogeyman of drug traffickers, who would be shot “stone cold dead” if law enforcement were allowed to use deadly force against people who break through border barriers with “hostile intent.”

Zachary Mueller, political director of the immigration reform group America’s Voice, said DeSantis is mainstreaming a “collection of phrases and ideas that are flat-out incitements to violence and have been linked to domestic terror attacks by white nationalists.”

“His dangerous language and ideas should be viewed through the lens of public safety more than political positioning and horse race maneuvering,” Mueller said in a statement following DeSantis’s speech.

As DeSantis and Trump battle for the front-runner spot in the GOP presidential primary race, advocates warn that escalating rhetoric about migrants at the border could put real lives at risk. From suburban Texas to Buffalo, New York, multiple white nationalist extremists who were inspired by racist conspiracy theories about immigrants and non-white people have committed atrocious acts hate-fueled mass murder.

“We cannot become numb to this stuff,” Mueller added.

The border is expected to be a main campaign issue for DeSantis and other Republicans seeking to knock Trump off his GOP pedestal. Of all major Republican policy planks, sending troops to the border with Mexico to stop illegal drug trafficking is proving to be most popular with general election voters. A broken immigration system has virtually nothing to do with the drug smuggling and the overdose crisis, which reflects failing public health and drug prohibition policies, but Republicans have effectively linked the two issues in the minds of some voters.

The DeSantis approach to the southern border — along with his plan to stoke nativist fears on the presidential campaign trail — looks and smells a lot like Trump. However, the DeSantis pitch to Republican voters is that he will be a leaner, meaner version of Trump. Speaking in front of banners reading “stop the invasion” and “no excuses,” DeSantis attacked the border policies of previous administrations and vowed to complete the militarization of the borderlands, including by building “the wall” that Trump promised back in 2016.

After years of blockading comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, Republicans are once again exploiting nativist fears about migrants to hammer President Joe Biden and the Democrats. Both Trump and Biden instituted harsh border policies in response to upticks in migration that supplied the right-wing media with images of Black and Brown people from poorer countries lining up to enter the U.S.

Trump, of course, is infamous for his brutal family separation policy and empowering law enforcement to warehouse huge numbers of human beings inside a network of immigration jails and prisons across the country. The Biden administration leveraged pandemic policies such as Title 42 and “remain in Mexico” to reduce the number of people apprehended and incarcerated on immigration charges, but thousands were left waiting in squalid camps in Mexico as a byzantine asylum system processed their claims.

DeSantis would also order federal law enforcement to detain all asylum seekers who cross the border while their claims wind through a convoluted legal process that Congress has failed to update. For DeSantis, this would mark the end of what he calls the “catch-and-release” policy — disgusting and dehumanizing language clearly intended to equate poor Black and Brown migrants with animals. It would also entail a massive expansion of immigration jails and detention facilities, which became icons of human suffering over the past decade.

However, DeSantis made no mention of the growing economic fallout from the harsh anti-immigrant law he recently signed as governor of Florida, where migrant laborers are fleeing crucial industries before the law goes into effect on July 1.

“Even before the bill takes effect, people are leaving, job sites are emptying and employers — some of whom are DeSantis supporters — are complaining,” said Mario Carrillo, campaigns director of America’s Voice, in a statement.

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