Did Florida’s lieutenant governor say ‘illegal’ Cuban migrants will be sent to Delaware?

Comments Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez made during a radio show struck a nerve with some listeners.
Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, left, speaks at a news conference along with Cuban exiles, of their concern of the sale of two local Spanish-language radio stations, Wednesday, June 8, 2022, at the Bay of Pigs Museum and Brigade 2506 headquarters in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, left, speaks at a news conference along with Cuban exiles, of their concern of the sale of two local Spanish-language radio stations, Wednesday, June 8, 2022, at the Bay of Pigs Museum and Brigade 2506 headquarters in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Aug. 22, 2022

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez — a Cuban-American Republican from Miami — raised eyebrows among some Cuban Americans over the weekend after appearing to suggest on a conservative AM radio show that Cubans who were in Florida “illegally” would be bused to Delaware.

In an interview with 1040 AM Actualidad Radio, Nuñez was asked her opinion on the historic number of Cubans coming from the communist island through the southern U.S. border to South Florida, and how it may impact communities in the state. She went on to say, “...He’s [DeSantis] going to send them, very frankly, to the state of Delaware, the state of the President.”

Nuñez’s message generally reflected Gov. Ron DeSantis’ hardline immigration policy, an area of enforcement that is handled by the federal government. But it struck a nerve among some Miami radio listeners, including a growing GOP base of Hispanic voters accustomed to hearing Republicans draw a distinction between migrants fleeing communist regimes and migrants fleeing rampant violence or seeking economic opportunities.

“Those numbers that have come through the border from Cuba, you can be completely sure that where they want to arrive, the final place where they want to go is Florida,” Nuñez said, before comparing the situation to the 1980 Mariel Boatlift: “This is going to be worse than Mariel, worse than everything that happened, the impacts in the 1980s and to not do anything is not an option.”

In defending Nuñez’s statements in English, her staff was quick to draw the distinction between Cubans and other groups of migrants.

“Once again, entering the country illegally and fleeing a dictatorship while seeking asylum are two very, very different things,” tweeted Nikki Whiting, Nuñez’s spokeswoman. “The only reason why the left is fixating on this is because Hispanics are flocking to the Republican Party.”

Nuñez’s comments, which she made during a nearly 20-minute interview on Friday afternoon, didn’t garner much attention until Saturday, when a University of Miami professor’s tweet of a clip from the interview began to circulate among journalists and politicians.

The interview became quick fodder for Democratic gubernatorial candidates Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist, who are facing off in the Aug. 23 primary election.

“Wildly inappropriate words from Ron DeSantis’” lieutenant governor, Fried tweeted. “Fleeing communism and tyranny to a state rich with family and culture only to be deported north by bus is cruel and wrong.”

Crist said in a statement, “Playing partisan political games with Cuban refugees is a betrayal of our deepest values as Floridians and as Americans. These men and women are escaping a brutal and murderous regime and yearning to be free.”

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Despite the criticism, Nuñez’s response in the interview is widely consistent with DeSantis’ immigration agenda: In response to a border processing chaos of mostly Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas last year, DeSantis proposed giving his administration $8 million to remove “unauthorized aliens” from the state (The Florida Senate ended up approving a $12 million fund earlier this year, but the Florida Department of Transportation has yet to release details on how the busing program would work).

Related: DeSantis law enforcement border mission racks up $1.6 million bill

He also deployed dozens of Florida law enforcement officials to the border, a mission that cost the state at least $1.6 million.

And the Legislature passed a law this year that would target contracts with transportation companies that work with the federal government to bring migrants to Florida. The state has shown no evidence that there are any contracts that fit that description, or that any action has been taken as a result of that law so far.

“I believe what we have done and what we’re doing is to have a posture at the state level,” said Nuñez on Actualidad. “...The Governor worked with the Legislature to secure funds to try to ensure that those people that come illegally — he, again, won’t remain with crossed arms. He will not be thinking about, ‘What is he going to do?’”

DeSantis campaign aide Christina Pushaw also weighed in on the controversy, saying there aren’t any Cuban migrants who come to the U.S. illegally, so anyone who understands immigration law would know the lieutenant governor wasn’t talking about busing Cubans out of Florida.

“[Nuñez] clearly said that those who come illegally should be transported out of Florida, no matter where they came from,” Pushaw tweeted. “If someone came to Miami on a raft from Cuba to escape communist repression, that person is legal [because they are a] refugee. This isn’t hard to understand.”

But winning asylum in the U.S. is not as simple as Pushaw suggests. And while Cubans for decades enjoyed special immigration benefits in the U.S. through the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, the way Cubans are now processed once they enter the country through a port of entry is no different from other migrants, said Miami immigration attorney Maureen Porras.

Related: DeSantis touted effort to combat illegal immigration. Most arrests were legal residents.

The main distinction is that Cubans are eligible for additional forms of deportation relief thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, a law that allowed for some eligible Cubans, particularly those on parole, to apply for legal permanent residence, Porras said.

But even then, Porras said the process through which Cubans receive parole status is being litigated.

“The parole used to be automatic. Cubans that successfully made it to the U.S. were automatically paroled under the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy,” Porras said. “That parole is no longer automatic.”

Asylum seekers in the U.S. have to meet five protective grounds to prove they are fleeing persecution. That gives migrants from countries like Cuba, where officials have routinely jailed and repressed dissenters in the past year over a wave of anti-government protests, a good case to fight for asylum. But even then, Porras said, it’s not a given.

As an example, only 17% of asylum cases that were processed in Miami were granted in the month of July, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, one of the most reliable sources for national immigration court data.

The vast majority of asylum cases overall — about 83% — were denied.

Broken down by nationality, seven Cuban migrants were granted asylum in July in the Miami immigration court system. That represents about 58% of the asylum cases, according to TRAC’s numbers.

By comparison, for Haitians, that figure was 5.26% — or just one Haitian migrant who was granted asylum status.

“There’s all types of cases. Not every person is going to have a valid asylum claim,” said Porras.

Miami Herald staff writer Devoun Cetoute, Syra Ortiz-Blanes and Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this story.