TAVERNIER, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent dozens of Texas immigrants to an island off the coast of Massachusetts last year to draw attention to illegal immigration ahead of the midterm elections. But as thousands of Cuban migrants have flocked to the shores of his own state in recent weeks, he has taken a more cautious stance.
The governor, who is the top Republican presidential candidate, activated the National Guard earlier this month. But the corresponding deployment of soldiers, boat patrols and military aircraft was slow. Some residents expressed disappointment at the constant influx of migrants when they recently inspected two large rafts abandoned in a Florida Keys public park.
“If they come in by boat, they need to turn the boat around,” said Ernest Weil, a Missouri resident who winters in Florida, inspecting a collection of cracked wood, adding that he doesn’t blame DeSantis. “From all I know, whatever Governor DeSantis chooses to do will be the right thing to do.”
The episode, set in south Florida, provides a glimpse of DeSantis’ leadership as he watches the presidential campaign against former President Donald Trump. The hardline governor won the admiration of many Republican voters across the country by championing tough conservative policies on cultural issues, including race, gender and immigration. But as he considers the president’s statement, DeSantis appears to be taking a more cautious approach to immigration developments in his backyard.
He remained silent on the subject for several days after the state of emergency was declared and the National Guard activated in a press release. His office refused to answer several questions about his approach to Cuban migrants. In the press release, he blamed the Biden administration but expressed sympathy for the Cubans, a community that usually supports Republicans in U.S. elections.
“Florida has a long history of helping refugees, including Cubans and others fleeing communist regimes, find support once they arrive in the United States,” DeSantis said.
While DeSantis is known for Trump’s brash leadership style and even his mannerisms, allies suggest that the Harvard-educated former military prosecutor is more adept at dealing with sensitive political issues than the former president.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Trump’s 2016 campaign rival, who attended DeSantis’ second inauguration last week, offered a lukewarm response when asked to evaluate the governor’s approach to sensitive issues like immigration.
“I’ll say overall Governor DeSantis has done a good job as governor and Florida is on the rise,” Bush told The Associated Press.
DeSantis’ associates privately believe he will make a final decision for 2024 by the end of March, although a public announcement may not be made until early summer. He is eyeing aggressive conservative politics in the coming months to strengthen his Republican candidacy. However, as DeSantis moves forward, the Cuban migrants present a test for him.
An estimated 7,400 Cubans have been caught in the waters off the coast of Florida trying to find shelter from their communist island nation in the past five months, an increase under DeSantis’ surveillance that could leave him vulnerable to criticism from the right.
Failed Florida Republican congressional candidate Laura Loomer, a popular voice among Trump’s most vocal supporters, has questioned DeSantis’ commitment to conservative politics on several fronts, especially immigration.
“Thanks to Governor Ron DeSantis, we now have more illegals in our country,” Loomer said. “During his tenure as governor, the immigration situation worsened.”
Cubans are leaving the island nation in the largest numbers in six decades. More than 6,000 Cubans traveling by sea were caught by federal authorities in the fiscal year October 2021 to September 2022, according to the US Coast Guard. This is up from about 800 a year earlier.
Meanwhile, according to US Customs and Border Protection, the number of illegal Cubans crossing the US-Mexico border increased from 39,000 between October 2020 and September 2021 to more than 220,000 between October 2021 and September 2022. Once captured, Cubans are usually able to continue their immigration cases in the courts, and many go to Florida.
That number could drop under new asylum rules announced by President Joe Biden, which now also apply to Cubans.
Cubans have long been granted immigration benefits under the Cuban Settlement Act of 1966. While some policies have changed under President Barack Obama and have not been reinstated under Trump, the absence of formal diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba reduces the likelihood of Cubans being deported.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ potential rivals in 2024 – and there are many besides Trump – are secretly hoping that the governor’s political star shine will fade as his status as a leading presidential candidate draws new attention.
In recent days, South Dakota Governor’s aide Christy Noem, who is also considering the presidential nomination, has criticized DeSantis’ support for a 15-week abortion ban as not being conservative enough. The Florida governor has faced corresponding criticism from anti-abortion activists in his own state who have called for him to impose even stricter restrictions on the procedure.
At the same time, Democratic operatives are going through DeSantis’ dossiers and tracking his every appearance to create content designed to weaken his political standing. American Bridge, a pro-democracy PAC supercomputer known for conducting so-called opposition research, has had a team focused on DeSantis since October, among other potential 2024 Republican nominees.
“DeSantis believes he was nationally tested, but the presidential primaries are a whole different game where seemingly small mistakes turn into big problems,” said American Bridge President Pat Dennis.
In the meantime, DeSantis plans to uphold his conservative good faith in the upcoming session of the Florida State Legislature, which begins in March and is expected to end by May.
It’s unclear what law DeSantis will pursue, but the governor has made it clear in recent weeks that he wants to keep fighting partisan divisions. He is not expected to face serious opposition in the overwhelmingly Republican legislature.
In late December, the DeSantis Budget Office called on state colleges to provide information on spending on programs related to diversity, equality, and inclusion, as well as critical racial theory that examines systemic racism. The request may be a prelude to DeSantis’ push to cut public funding around what he calls a “revival” ideology in public schools. Colleges were due to submit spending data by last Friday.
DeSantis also recently made a series of high-profile conservative appointments to the liberal arts college board of trustees. Critics are concerned that he is simply injecting his conservative policies into public higher education.
“Is he willing to just burn the institution to the ground and harm the community just to earn cheap political points?” asked Andrew Gotthard, president of Florida Faculty United.
The Governor is about to score another political victory in his fight against Walt Disney World. With his blessing, Republican lawmakers are expected to pass a sweeping bill to increase state control over the private government run by the entertainment giant over its Florida properties.
DeSantis pushed the legislature last year to dissolve the Disney government over the company’s objections to what critics call “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that bans teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
However, this is not all the advantages for the Republican base.
In the final year of his first term, DeSantis orchestrated pay increases for teachers and law enforcement, higher minimum wages for government employees, and various state tax suspensions. The Governor has also committed billions of dollars to the restoration of the Everglades and other environmental projects. This week, he signed an executive order calling on lawmakers to allocate another $3.5 billion to similar environmental initiatives.
And on the Cuban immigration front, he has avoided the fiery conservative rhetoric that has defined his view of the US-Mexico border—at least so far.
The Florida National Guard announced on Wednesday that it is mobilizing 12 military aircraft and about 150 military personnel to help south Florida authorities respond to “mass migration affecting the area.”
“The Florida National Guard is supporting and following the orders of our Commander-in-Chief, Governor Ron DeSantis,” the guard said in a statement.