Ron DeSantis breaks silence on migrant flights that landed on Gavin Newsom's turf, boasting that the program was 'very effective'

  • DeSantis on Wednesday defended a Florida program that relocates migrants to blue states.

  • He held a roundtable with law enforcement intended to shine a light on illegal immigration.

  • Sanctuary cities should shoulder the relief efforts of "open borders," DeSantis said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday defended a controversial political stunt to have migrants relocated from Texas to California, saying officials who advocate for more lax immigration policies should have to bear the consequences.

"If the policy is to have an open border, I think the sanctuary cities should be the ones that have to bear that," DeSantis said Wednesday.

The 2024 presidential candidate made the comments in response to questions from reporters after an hourlong roundtable conversation in Sierra Vista, Arizona, with law enforcement officials.

Until Wednesday, DeSantis hadn't commented publicly about the flights that landed in Sacramento, first on Friday and then again on Monday. The Florida Division of Emergency Management, the state agency responsible for coordinating the relocation program, acknowledged Tuesday afternoon that it was behind the flights, and insisted that the trips were all voluntary and that the migrants were treated well.

Democrats, including the Biden administration and California officials, have criticized DeSantis' actions as a cruel stunt in which vulnerable people were misled.

On Wednesday, DeSantis singled out sanctuary cities in discussing the migrant flights, saying officials there "become very upset" when Florida relocates migrants in their backyard, but didn't step up to help other jurisdictions on the border who face an influx of people daily.

Sanctuary cities limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities by refusing to report or hand over certain undocumented immigrants for deportation. Sacramento is one of these cities and also the state capital, from which Gov. Democrat Gavin Newsom, who has been critical of DeSantis, governs.

"These sanctuary jurisdictions are part of the reason we have this problem," DeSantis said. "Because they have endorsed and agitated for these types of open-border policies."

DeSantis often refers to President Joe Biden's policy as "open border." Biden, however, announced a crackdown on illegal immigration in January, saying the federal government would deny entry to people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela if they bypassed official ports into the US from Mexico.

The Biden administration also recently allowed Title 42 expire, though the surge in migrants Republicans warned about hasn't materialized. The controversial Trump administration-era policy, which began during the COVID-19 pandemic, returned migrants to their home countries or sent them to Mexico. Migrants have been apprehended 2.8 million times since the policy started, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Last year, Border Patrol agents made nearly 2 million arrests of people who crossed the border illegally, and an estimated 11 million people — roughly 800,00 of whom were Floridians — were living in the US while undocumented in 2017.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California.Scott Eisen/Getty Images and Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

DeSantis took a hardline stance on undocumented immigrants in Florida

As governor, DeSantis expanded restrictions on undocumented workers in Florida, which, as Insider previously reported, led to some undocumented people leaving the state to be able to continue their employment.

The GOP-supermajority legislature even altered the migrant relocation program to give DeSantis legal cover over a flight his administration planned to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, by changing the language of the law so Florida officials could move migrants from any state and keep the details of the transportation companies secret.

"I think it's also been every effective," DeSantis said about the relocation program at the start of the roundtable.

DeSantis also defended the use of a $12 million fund in Florida to pay for the relocation program. The plan first went through the legislature and was an issue he campaigned on for reelection in 2022. "People have had that debate and I think the people have rendered their verdict," he said.

Under DeSantis, Florida sent more than 1,100 members of its national guard to Texas. According to a release from the governor's office, they have assisted with more than 190 arrests, including felony charges for human smuggling and unlawful weapons possession.

Much of DeSantis' roundtable was devoted to asking Arizona officials how Florida could assist with illegal immigration. Florida would be "working with the sheriffs in a more formal way moving forward," he said.

"If a sheriff asks for our support in Texas we view this as an American problem," he said. "We don't view it just as a Texas problem and we think we're all in it together."

During the conversation, sheriffs complained about the Biden administration's border policies, shared stories about crimes committed by people living in the US illegally, and expressed dismay over the overwhelming number of deaths in their communities from fentanyl, a highly potent opioid.

The DeSantis campaign sent an email to reporters ahead of the governor's roundtable in Arizona that stressed the fact that illegal immigration was among the top issues for Republican voters.

DeSantis promised on the 2024 campaign trail that if elected president, he would resume building a border wall between the US and Mexico and re-institute the "remain in Mexico" policy, which requires migrants to wait across the border until their asylum cases can be heard.

He indicated during Wednesday's event that his campaign would roll out more policies in the weeks ahead. "I think the border should be closed," he said.

The governor didn't directly criticize Newsom or respond to the Californian's depiction of him as a "small, pathetic man," nor did he address potential legal trouble that could come from his actions.

On Monday, a Texas sheriff said charges should be brought in connection to the Martha's Vineyard flights. The county district attorney is expected to consider the recommendations and decide whether to prosecute the case.

Newsom and California's attorney general, Rob Bonta, have floated the idea of pressing "kidnapping charges" against DeSantis by invoking a section of the criminal code that penalizes people who forcibly bring people into "the limits of the state."

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