TALLAHASSEE — Twenty-eight people have been arrested on charges related to looting in Lee County, the county hit hardest by Hurricane Ian — three of whom were singled out by Gov. Ron DeSantis in news conferences.
The three individuals have one thing in common: They are in the country illegally.
DeSantis was quick to underscore the immigration status of three suspects during a news conference on Oct. 4 in Fort Myers, where he provided updates on the hurricane recovery process. DeSantis said that four people had been arrested at that point on charges related to looting, but subsequent records show at least eight arrests had been made by then.
“Three of the four are illegal aliens,” DeSantis said five minutes into the news conference. “These are people that are foreigners. They are illegally in our country — and not only that — they try to loot and ransack in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They should be prosecuted, but they need to be sent back to their home country.”
“They should not be here at all,” he said, prompting applause from the crowd.
DeSantis immediately changed the subject to outline the number of people who had been rescued after the hurricane. But he brought up the arrests to send a message to Floridians that looting would not be tolerated in a “law and order” state like Florida.
Since those comments, 24 more people have been arrested on looting charges, according to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office — all of whom were in the country legally.
The governor has not mentioned the bulk of the arrests in news conferences. He has only highlighted the arrests of those who were in the country illegally, even though he has put an emphasis on cracking down on looters in general.
“We’ve been very clear that in situations like this we are not going to let bad actors exploit them. That means law and order will be enforced. That means Floridians’ right to defend themselves and their homes will be honored,” DeSantis said before he mentioned the immigration status of three of the four who had been arrested.
Jessie Santero, a spokesperson for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email that the three migrants were among the first to be arrested in the county for looting after the storm. DeSantis’ office did not immediately answer why the governor decided to focus on the three.
In recent months, DeSantis has drawn attention for how he is pushing back on the number of unauthorized migrants coming into Florida.
In September, he transported almost 50 migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, by airplane. The flights, which took place two weeks before Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, boosted DeSantis’ standing in national Republican circles as he seeks reelection in November and is rumored to be mulling a bid for president in 2024.
The flights have also led to a criminal investigation in San Antonio and a federal lawsuit from migrants on the Martha’s Vineyard flight who claim he violated their civil rights.
Over the summer, DeSantis highlighted a law enforcement operation in Northwest Florida, led by his administration, that resulted in the arrests of “illegal aliens” and the recovery of “enough fentanyl to kill off 2,000 people in the state of Florida.”
However, he did not mention that the vast majority of the 22 arrests were not related to immigration but rather tied to men and women who live in the country legally. DeSantis also implied that migrants living in the country illegally had been arrested on drug-related crimes, when none were, according to arrest records obtained by the Times/Herald.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.