DeSantis unveils border and immigration policy plan for his presidential campaign

He vowed to end birthright citizenship and to complete a border wall.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves while arriving on stage June 9, 2023, in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves while arriving on stage June 9, 2023, in Greensboro, North Carolina. [ WIN MCNAMEE | Getty Images North America ]
Published June 26, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday unveiled a sweeping plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration system and ramp up border enforcement, vowing to end birthright citizenship, “repel the invasion” at the U.S. southern border and use the “levers at our disposal” to ensure cooperation from Mexico.

The plan, which was unveiled during a campaign trip to the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, ushered in the beginning of a new, policy-focused phase of DeSantis’ presidential bid that his campaign has billed as a more direct effort to challenge President Joe Biden.

But the rollout also doubled as an attempt to criticize former President Donald Trump, the heavy front-runner for the GOP’s 2024 White House nomination whose political brand was built in large part on his hardline — and often inflammatory — rhetoric on immigration and border security.

“The reason why I’m really motivated to bring this issue to a conclusion is because I have listened to people in D.C. for years and years and years,” DeSantis told supporters on Monday. “Republicans and Democrats always chirping about this and never actually bringing the issue to a conclusion, never actually getting the job done.”

DeSantis pledged to end “catch and release” — the policy that allows migrants to be released into the U.S. while they await their asylum hearing — reimpose the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy and finish Trump’s long-promised, though still incomplete, border wall.

DeSantis also said that Border Patrol agents should be able to “respond with force” if they catch drug smugglers attempting to sneak into the U.S.

“If the cartels are cutting through the border wall, trying to run product into this country, they’re going to end up stone-cold dead as a result of that bad decision,” DeSantis said during a news conference after his rollout speech. “And if you do that one time, you are not going to see them mess with our wall ever again.”

DeSantis’ proposals went even further, calling for the end of birthright citizenship, in which the United States automatically grants citizenship to anyone born within its borders. That right is granted under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” The Constitution also says that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Additionally, DeSantis said he would cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration law, and deputize state and local governments to enforce immigration law.

“I think the states have a role to play,” DeSantis said. “I can tell you, as a president, we are fully going to deputize all state and local governments to be able to enforce immigration law, you will be able to have that authority.”

DeSantis’ record as governor

As governor, DeSantis has signed legislation that requires all Florida law enforcement officials that operate a county detention center to participate in a federal immigration program, known as the 287(g), designed to identify immigrants who are in the country illegally in county jail after they are arrested. Officers are deputized to work under the supervision of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the training is paid for by Florida taxpayers.

The program is among a series of state actions DeSantis has taken as governor to have a role in enforcing federal immigration law. Some of the actions have been done with the help of the Republican-led Legislature, but others have been done through executive orders and emergency rules.

In his first term, DeSantis has spent at least $1.6 million to send state law enforcement officers to Texas to help secure the border, cracked down on Florida migrant shelters that care for migrant kids, asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate immigration-related crimes and launched a strike force that mirrors a broader partisan effort promoted by national Republican groups.

Most prominently, DeSantis created a state-funded program that has allowed him to relocate migrants from Texas to other parts of the country, including Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and Sacramento, California. The program has led to several lawsuits, including from migrants who say they were tricked into getting on the planes to Martha’s Vineyard, and a criminal investigation by the Bexar County sheriff in Texas.

Addressing supporters in Texas on Monday, DeSantis pledged that, if elected president, he would look to enact at the federal level a version of a sweeping immigration bill Florida lawmakers passed last month that requires businesses with more than 25 employees to use E-Verify, a federal electronic system, to check the immigration status of new hires. The state law he signed exempts independent contractors and those who hire people to do house work, such as housekeepers, maids and gardeners.

A ‘Day One’ Priority

DeSantis vowed on Monday to charge forward on his own whenever possible to impose his immigration agenda.

“When we go in on day one we’re gonna marshal every bit of authority that we have, will work with Congress when we need to, we’ll take executive action when we can, and it will be a day one priority, and you’re gonna see a big change very, very quickly,” DeSantis said.

Among his other proposals: raising pay for Border Patrol agents, restricting visas of countries that don’t accept deportees and defunding nongovernmental organizations and other groups “engaged in facilitating illegal alien processing, human smuggling, and encouraging mass migration.”

DeSantis also used the policy announcement to pivot to foreign policy, saying that as president of the United States, he would use all the “levers at our disposal” to “ensure better behavior” from Mexico.

“I think there is a lot of leverage we have over Mexico that a lot of presidents have not been willing to use,” he said. “I think that they think that somehow that will be bad politically. I don’t think so at all. I think you’ve got to do it.”

While DeSantis did not provide too many specifics on his plans, he seemed to agree with a supporter in the crowd who suggested that Mexico is committing an “act of war” because they are not doing enough to stop migrants from coming into the country.

“I think we should act,” DeSantis said. “I view taking action that is very forward-facing in terms of that because it’s violating our sovereignty and it’s killing Americans.”

DeSantis added that when he is president, he would give Texas law enforcement the authority to deport individuals.

“As president, under Article II of the Constitution, you have a responsibility and a duty to protect the country, and we are going to do that and we are going to do that robustly,” DeSantis said.

Little more than a month into his 2024 presidential campaign, DeSantis has struggled to close a yawning polling gap with Trump. The governor’s policy announcement on Monday — the first major rollout of his White House bid — seized on an issue that Republicans, particularly Trump, have used for years to energize their conservative voter base.

Yet DeSantis still faces tough competition on the immigration front, most notably from Trump, who has sought to elevate the issue in his own presidential bid. Speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, Trump pledged to “carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” and finish building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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