SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday defended his state’s decision to fly migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to California, arguing that the state had essentially invited the migrants with its welcoming policies toward immigrants.
DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, spoke at a meeting with sheriffs near Arizona’s border with Mexico, pledging to get control of the border and flexing his muscles on a signature issue for Donald Trump, his chief rival for the 2024 nomination.
“I think the border should be closed. I don’t think we should have any of this,” DeSantis said. “But if there’s a policy to have an open border, then I think the sanctuary jurisdictions should be the ones that have to bear that.”
DeSantis’ administration said this week that the three dozen migrants whom the state recently flew from El Paso, Texas, to Sacramento at taxpayer expense all went willingly, disputing allegations that the individuals were coerced to travel under false pretenses. California officials are investigating whether any violations of criminal or civil law occurred.
For DeSantis, the focus on immigration is a chance to boost his credibility on a top issue for GOP primary voters. He sees political upside in picking a high-profile fight with liberal California and its Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, who has become a bogeyman for many on the right.
It’s also an opportunity for DeSantis to confront an issue that has been central to the appeal of Trump, who promised to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it. By the end of his administration, the wall had not been finished and U.S. taxpayers were on the hook for the billions of dollars it cost.
This is not the first time DeSantis has chartered planes to transfer migrants across the country. Last fall, Florida flew 49 Venezuelans to the upscale Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.
California declared itself a “sanctuary” for immigrants after Trump was elected president, extending protections to people living in the country illegally and allowing them to apply for some state benefits. DeSantis said those policies serve as a magnet for people looking for a better life and make it harder to crack down on illegal immigration.
“The sanctuary jurisdictions are part of the reason we have this problem because they have endorsed and agitated for these types of open border policies,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis did not respond to Newsom, who raised the possibility of kidnapping charges and called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man.”
Immigration is a national problem that border states shouldn’t have to shoulder on their own, DeSantis said, adding that the federal government should give states more authority to enforce immigration law on their own. Beyond the migrant flights, he touted Florida’s other efforts to confront illegal immigration beyond its borders, including sending National Guard soldiers and state law enforcement officers to Texas and interdicting migrant boats off Florida’s coast.
DeSantis said Florida taxpayers are on board with his use of state funds to move migrants from Texas to California, saying it was an issue in the campaign in which he was overwhelmingly reelected last year. DeSantis in May signed a law allocating $12 million that can be used for migrant flights.
Two weeks after kicking off his presidential campaign, DeSantis is in a distant second place behind Trump. He did not mention his rival by name, taking aim instead at President Joe Biden’s border policies, which he blamed for the proliferation of drugs.
The Florida governor met with sheriffs from around the country at a community college in the southeastern Arizona town of Sierra Vista, a conservative enclave that’s home to many Border Patrol officers and sits next to the Fort Huachuca Army base. Later, his aides said he planned to visit the border but did not allow journalists to come.
Trump’s super PAC noted that DeSantis praised his rival’s immigration policies on Twitter two years ago and pointed to the former president’s own immigration plans. Trump has revived his pledge to end birthright citizenship and his push to use the U.S. military to attack foreign drug cartels. He also has pushed the death penalty for drug dealers.
In Arizona, DeSantis pledged to crack down on “bogus asylum claims” from people who want to move to the U.S. for economic reasons. He said he is “sympathetic” to people legitimately facing political persecution, but the U.S. could deny asylum claims from people who traveled through other safe countries to get here.