DeSantis touted effort to combat illegal immigration. Most arrests were residents legally.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has put a focus on immigration issues.
In the last two years, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has agreed to spend at least $1.6 million to send state law enforcement officers to the southern border in Texas to fight illegal immigration. DeSantis, center, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, hold a news conference in Del Rio, Texas, in 2021 to talk about a three-week effort to enforce the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the last two years, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has agreed to spend at least $1.6 million to send state law enforcement officers to the southern border in Texas to fight illegal immigration. DeSantis, center, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, hold a news conference in Del Rio, Texas, in 2021 to talk about a three-week effort to enforce the U.S.-Mexico border. [ ANA CEBALLOS, Times/Herald ]
Published July 28, 2022|Updated July 28, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Inside a packed room at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office in June, Gov. Ron DeSantis talked about the many ways his administration is trying to “keep illegals out of the state of Florida” in response to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

He highlighted a state-led law enforcement operation, which took place June 7-9 in four counties in northwest Florida. When talking about outcomes, the governor’s message was unmistakable: The state was doing its part to combat illegal immigration because it had arrested several “illegal aliens.”

“They were able to recover these illegal aliens and enough fentanyl to kill off 2,000 people in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at the news conference in Pensacola.

What DeSantis did not mention is 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 was, according to arrest records provided by the Florida Highway Patrol and two of the four sheriff’s offices that participated in the state’s effort.

A review of the records shows seven migrants living in the country illegally were arrested after being pulled over by police for traffic violations — including driving too slow, having excessively tinted windows and having counterfeit registration tags on their vehicles. They were arrested on suspicion of human smuggling when authorities found out they were in the country illegally and were traveling across state lines. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have not responded to a request for information about those seven arrests and the immigration status of those people.

One of the detainees was wanted in El Salvador, his native country, for theft and conspiracy to commit theft, records show. The police report said his family had arranged to pay someone $3,500 to drive him from Texas, where he illegally crossed into the country, to Miami. DeSantis emphasized the details of that arrest during the news conference.

The governor did not call any attention to the crimes committed by the 15 people who were arrested and were legal residents, even though they were charged with possession of fentanyl, methamphetamine, wanted on grand theft of a firearm or wanted on domestic battery charges in other parts of the state.

The remarks illustrated just how much political weight DeSantis is giving to the issue of immigration as he seeks reelection and is widely considered a leading contender to challenge former President Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination.

At the news conference, for example, he emphasized that Florida was taking action on immigration because federal policy was hurting “innocent” people in the state.

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“Don’t let anyone tell you that the only people affected by illegal immigration are the border town. That’s just not true,” DeSantis said.

Related: DeSantis urges grand jury probe into border migration

DeSantis opposes Biden’s policies

Since taking office in 2019, DeSantis has pushed for measures aligned with a hard-line immigration platform. He has banned so-called sanctuary cities in Florida, and required government employers and some private businesses to use a federal system known as E-Verify to check the immigration status of workers (and faced criticism from some conservatives for not going far enough).

In the last two years, the governor agreed to spend at least $1.6 million to send state law enforcement officers to the southern border in Texas, cracked down on Florida shelters that care for migrant kids, asked the Florida Supreme Court to approve a request for a statewide grand jury to investigate immigration-related crimes such as the smuggling of children into the country illegally. And he launched the strike-force operation, which is part of a broader partisan effort promoted by the Republican Governors Association.

Larry Keefe, the governor’s senior adviser for public safety, said the mission in northwest Florida will be “reviewed, refined and replicated throughout the entire state of Florida.”

Plans to expand the strike force, at the direction of the governor, are being executed to “protect Florida from the kind of crime that is caused by illegal mass immigration,” Keefe said at the news conference.

A month later, the governor’s office is talking about the strike force’s mission more broadly, not just in the context of immigration.

“To be clear, the interdiction program is designed to keep Florida communities and families safe, catch and prevent drug smuggling, human trafficking, human smuggling, and the illegal transportation of firearms. Any individuals suspected of these crimes — whether they are illegal aliens, legal residents, or U.S. citizens — will be stopped by law enforcement,” DeSantis’ communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in an email statement.

At the June news conference, which included a sign that said “Biden’s Border Crisis,” DeSantis said the effort was to “interdict illegal drug smuggling, human trafficking, as well as illegals that are illegally carrying firearms throughout the state of Florida.”

Republican governors’ agenda

When asked for more information about the plans, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement cited an April 19 news release from the Republican Governors Association. The goal of the operation, according to the association, was to “disrupt and dismantle the transnational criminal organizations taking advantage of the chaos Joe Biden has created along the southern border.”

When asked if the strike force was done in response to the association’s effort, Fenske said the administration cited the partisan organization to provide “additional background, regarding similar strike force efforts across other states to better frame (this Times/Herald) story.”

“To imply sending a link with details to be helpful is ‘political’ is why it’s difficult to work with the Miami Herald,” Fenske said.

When asked why DeSantis only focused on immigration-related arrests, and not the broad outcomes of the operation, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said the governor’s remarks were “informed by law enforcement sources.”

Two of the four sheriff’s offices that were asked to participate in the state-led strike force were under the impression that the operation was generally designed to target human traffickers and other crimes, not just illegal immigration, as DeSantis suggested.

“Our goal was to find criminal infractions and to enforce them. That was our goal,” said Corey Dobridnia, a spokesperson for the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. “Criminal activity on the interstate does not know race, color, gender. We are here to uphold the law and make our communities safer.”

Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Michele Nicholson said deputies were focused on “seizing stolen vehicles, cargo, identifying human traffickers, arresting fugitives and that sort of thing” and said that the office was not aware of the citizenship status of those arrested in the county.

The other two sheriff’s offices — Santa Rosa and Escambia — referred all questions to the Florida Highway Patrol and declined to comment on their efforts.