MIAMI — South Florida Democrats on Monday went after Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who over the weekend faced backlash for appearing to suggest on a radio show that Cubans who were in Florida “illegally” should be bused out of the state.
During a press conference, Miami Latino Democrats slammed Nuñez and the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis for advancing immigration policies that they said affect Cubans who are fleeing a communist regime.
The criticism of Nuñez, a Miami-raised Cuban American, was personal: Former Miami mayor Manny Diaz, who is also Cuban American and chairs the Florida Democratic Party, called on Nuñez to distance herself from DeSantis’ rhetoric about immigrants.
“I have known Lieutenant Governor Nuñez for decades. This is not the Jeanette Nuñez I used to know,” said Diaz, who said Nuñez had become an “instrument” of DeSantis’ reelection campaign. “It is clear that he cares about no one other than himself and his political aspirations and agenda. But Lieutenant Governor, you should know better. Or have you become so driven by power now that you have left your heart, your compassion and your principles at the door?”
The press conference at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, just a day before Florida’s primary election, extended the life of a controversy ignited by statements Nuñez made during a radio interview last week. Nuñez’s response to a question about Cuban migrants, in which she explained DeSantis’ official proposal to bus undocumented migrants out of Florida, has drawn criticism from Democrats, immigration advocates and some Cuban Americans across the political spectrum.
The backlash prompted Nuñez to personally respond to the controversy on an early Monday morning appearance on Americano Media — a new national radio outlet aimed at conservative Hispanics — and saying her initial comments had been intentionally twisted by Democrats. She later published a statement on Twitter with roughly the same response.
“We know that there is a process to seek asylum for people, including Cubans, who are coming here for political reasons, not for economic reasons,” Nuñez said on the Spanish-language radio show. “I think they’re trying to use it…to bring a bit of enthusiasm to the Democratic Party, which doesn’t exist in the Hispanic community.”
Rhetoric or immigration law?
When clarifying her controversial comments Monday, Nuñez drew a distinction between being a “political” refugee and immigrants who are coming into the country for “economic” reasons.
For decades, Cubans received special immigration treatment in the U.S. through the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy. But now, Cubans are processed once they enter the country through a port of entry, just like other migrants, according to Miami immigration attorney Maureen Porras.
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The main difference now 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 immigration 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.
Those dynamics came into full view last summer as DeSantis held a press conference in the border city of Del Rio, Texas, to tout that Florida had sent 50 law enforcement officials to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border. That same day, about two hours after the governor’s press conference, three Cubans were apprehended by a group of Texas law enforcement officers after they illegally crossed the Rio Grande, into the U.S.
After they were apprehended, state law enforcement officers began the process of turning them over to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. It’s unclear whether they were deported or granted asylum or refugee status.
The DeSantis administration has previously been forced to contend with the ideological rifts that exist within South Florida’s politically powerful Cuban community, as well as the historic treatment of Cubans compared to other migrant groups. In February, the governor came under fire over a policy directing the state to stop giving licenses to Florida shelters caring for unaccompanied migrant minors in federal custody.
Among them is Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village in Miami. The shelter cared for unaccompanied Cuban minors who came to Miami in the early 1960s through Operation Pedro Pan. While some former Pedro Pan kids came to DeSantis’ defense at a public roundtable in Miami, others were vocal in their opposition, writing a letter and holding press conferences asking DeSantis to reverse the policy.
Nuñez dismissed criticism of Friday’s remarks in her Twitter statement: “Entering the country illegally and fleeing a dictatorship to seek asylum are two different things, and misrepresenting that is offensive.”
Florida slow to implement busing program
Nuñez’s comments have renewed attention on a controversial immigration program DeSantis has vowed to implement but has yet to roll out.
At the governor’s request, the Florida Department of Transportation has access to $12 million to contract with private transportation companies to bus undocumented immigrants out of the state. But the program has not launched yet.
Texas has been running a similar program since April. For months, the state has been offering free rides to migrants to Washington, D.C., and New York City as Gov. Greg Abott, who is also running for reelection, takes aim at Democrats’ immigration policies.
Texas’ busing program is voluntary for migrants who can show documentation that they have been processed and released by the Department of Homeland Security, and the state pays for the travel expenses, according to the Texas Tribune.
It is unclear if Florida’s program would work the same way. DeSantis has been silent on the details, though he repeatedly boasts about his plans in press conferences, late-night Fox News interviews and conservative political events.
“If you sent them to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard or some of these places, that border would be secure the next day,” DeSantis said back in December. Delaware, is President Joe Biden’s home state, while Martha’s Vineyard is an island south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, popular for summer vacations and accessible only by plane or ferry.
For now, the state’s transportation department is only saying that “all aspects of the program will be consistent with federal law.”
The state agency has not clarified whether the program will be voluntary for migrants, like it is in Texas. It also remains unclear if the state is in contact with any private companies who may be interested in contracting with the state to relocate migrants to other parts of the country.
Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo, who is running for Congress and is on the ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, said on Monday that when the program was first floated, it wasn’t made clear where migrants would be taken and how they would avoid interfering with federal immigration enforcement officials.
“DeSantis and the Republican Party profess to stand with those fleeing communism and socialism. Yet they continuously turn their backs on those fleeing total repression in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua,” Taddeo said.