DEL RIO, Texas — Four years after escaping “terror” in Cuba, traversing 13 borders, a dangerous jungle, and finally, the Rio Grande, Gelacio Vera Gonzalez and his wife, Yenedi Monterrey Mena, touched American soil for the first time in the border city of Del Rio, Texas.
They fell to their knees, looked up to the sky and thanked God while weeping. At long last, on a searing-hot Saturday afternoon, they had arrived at a place where they could speak their minds.
“This is the only country where we have opportunity, because over there we cannot speak our mind,” Gelacio Vera Gonzalez said. “We are happy we are here, but we are thinking about the family we left behind who is still suffering from what we did.”
Junior Sotomayor, a friend who crossed the Rio Grande with them with arms interlocked, said he wants to head to Miami, where he, too, has family.
Within seconds of touching American ground, the three Cubans were apprehended by a group of Texas law enforcement officers who began the process of turning them over to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Whether they will be deported remains unknown.
Just four hours earlier, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, had visited that very same spot as they were briefed on what some 50 Florida law enforcement officials had been doing during a 23-day stint to help Texas officers secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
After that visit, DeSantis and an entourage of state officials held a press conference with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, to talk about the states’ efforts to enforce the U.S. border.
The event was emblematic of the border politics that have become more mainstream since President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office. Republicans, even those not in border states like DeSantis, have used the issue to fire up their political base.
Timing a fundraising pitch with his visit
For instance, the political committee of DeSantis, who is positioning himself for re-election in 2022 and is widely believed to be considering a run for the White House, did not hesitate to use the mission in Texas as a fundraising pitch shortly after the press conference was over. He is not yet an officially declared candidate.
“If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris choose to pander to the left-wing, open borders base of their party rather than keep our nation safe, then it is up to the rest of us to do what is necessary to combat this crisis. That’s why when the governors of Texas and Arizona asked for help, I was the first governor to send resources,” DeSantis’ Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee said in a fundraising email to supporters.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection says southwest land border encounters for fiscal year 2021, which includes the end of Trump’s term and Biden’s tenure so far, are up compared with the past few years.
While in Texas, DeSantis said Florida law enforcement officers have assisted with the apprehension of more than 2,800 undocumented immigrants, like the three Cuban friends who crossed illegally into the United States on Saturday afternoon.
“Of the individuals our law enforcement have apprehended at the border, more than 70 percent said they ultimately wanted to go to Florida,” DeSantis said during a press conference with Abbott at an airport hangar in Del Rio, Texas, a border city more than 1,000 miles away from Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee.
If the undocumented immigrants ultimately make it to Florida, DeSantis said it will be a “stress on public resources, schools, medical, all of these things” and “greatly impact communities throughout Florida, and I think throughout the country.”
DeSantis, who in 2019 signed into law a ban on so-called sanctuary cities, of which there were none in Florida, and who in 2020 signed into law a requirement for some employers to use E-Verify to screen undocumented workers, did not mention those policies during the press conference.
But Simpson, who is believed to be eyeing a run for agriculture commissioner, told the Times/Herald on Saturday that those policies are “apparently not” a deterrent after seeing how many undocumented immigrants in Texas are still looking to go to Florida.
“I think it is something we need to look at as a state and what kind of resources do we have to address this crisis,” Simpson said, but said he did not know if tougher immigration policies would be proposed for the 2022 legislative session, which kicks off in January.
When asked if DeSantis wants to do more in terms of state policy, he said the governor was “gathering information.”
Florida officers’ mission in Texas
During Saturday’s press conference, DeSantis said the activity that state law enforcement officers have intercepted at the border during their three weeks there has reinforced his decision to send state resources to Texas.
In addition to apprehending undocumented immigrants, state law enforcement officers — who have been patrolling the area by airboat, by foot and by air — have also intercepted some drugs, including methamphetamine but not in “massive quantities,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in an interview Saturday.
The mission is expected to last until early August, with no promise that Florida taxpayers will be reimbursed by Texas.
Usually, the state that requests assistance reimburses other states for travel costs, said Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis. In this case, Texas asked Florida to send “all available law enforcement resources to the border in defense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
DeSantis complied, and sent both personnel and equipment.
Texas doesn’t plan to reimburse Florida’s expenses
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety told the Times/Herald that states are sending troops “at their own expense” and that there will be no reimbursement. When asked Saturday, Abbott did not commit to reimbursing Florida for travel expenses associated with the mission.
While reimbursements appear unlikely, DeSantis and state officials say the mission is still a worthwhile use of state funds.
“The bottom line is, Texas has helped us in the past. They asked for Florida’s help, and the governor said we would help,” Swearingen said. “So finding the resources, we will figure all that stuff out. We will figure out how we pay for this. But you can’t come here [Texas] and not realize what is going on here.”
DeSantis added that the mission is within the state’s means.
“Obviously, we are doing this within an existing budget. We’re making sure that all our priorities are met. We have a lot of stuff going on in the state,” DeSantis said.
He then added: “Hopefully, we’ll get some other states to step up.”