Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday announced he is sending members of the Florida State Guard, a civilian military force under his control, and other state resources to the U.S.-Mexico border to help Texas stop what he called an “invasion.”
The deployment comes as Texas is in a standoff with the Biden administration over efforts to keep migrants from crossing into the state with a concertina-wire barrier. In January, the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration and said federal officials would be allowed to tear down state-erected barriers, which Texas officials have vowed to continue building if taken down.
“The goal is to help Texas fortify this border, help them strengthen the barricades, help them add barriers, help them add the wire that they need so that we can stop this invasion once and for all,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Jacksonville.
DeSantis’ decision to send Florida personnel at taxpayers’ expense to secure the border in Texas is a continuation of the governor’s yearslong efforts to position himself as a chief rival to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
Since 2021, he has spent more than $15 million on immigration-related efforts that he says have helped stop migrants crossing Florida’s maritime border in the Florida Keys and are helping Texas officers enforce the southern border. Those efforts, and his promises to use “deadly force” against suspected drug traffickers, were a key part of his failed presidential campaign as he tried to appeal to conservative voters.
Now that he is no longer a presidential candidate, DeSantis is renewing his focus on the issue by once again flexing his executive power to act.
DeSantis said the border issue is “at an inflection point about whether we’re going to be a country anymore or not.” The comment mirrors the type of rhetoric other conservatives have embraced on the topic, including former President Donald Trump, who last year said immigrants were “poisoning the blood” of America.
The decision was quickly condemned by state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, who said it was a “desperate” attempt by the governor to get national attention.
“The men and women of the State Guard, and certainly the National Guard, did not sign up to be used as political stunts,” she said. “And that’s clearly what this is.”
DeSantis said State Guard members would be deployed to Texas alongside members of the Florida National Guard and Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who in recent years have taken part in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security initiatives.
It is unclear how many members will be sent, or for how long, but at the news conference there were roughly 50 members standing by the governor as he made the announcement.
DeSantis said they would be sent to Texas “shortly” under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a mutual-aid partnership among all states.
Under that agreement, Texas can give Florida state law enforcement officers and guardsmen “the same arrest and law enforcement powers, right, and privileges while operating within the state limits of Texas as ordinarily afforded to law enforcement forces for the State of Texas,” according to past mutual-aid agreements DeSantis has signed with Texas on border security.
In the past, Florida officers have operated in locations that included the Rio Grande Valley sector. That area is where Texas erected razor wire and installed buoys to discourage migrants from crossing into the United States.
In January, the Supreme Court ruled that federal officials would be allowed to remove the wire barriers. The ruling did not include any reasoning. Texas continues to say the wire barriers are needed as a result of the federal government not doing enough to apprehend migrants.
“Texas has a right to erect barriers,” DeSantis said on Thursday. “We are going to assist them in doing that.”
The deployment will mark the first time members of the Florida State Guard have been activated to do work outside of the state.
The volunteer force, which was revived by DeSantis in 2022 to respond to emergencies in the state, so far has been activated to respond to natural disasters. DeSantis’ office indicated in the last year he also intends to use the State Guard to help “law enforcement with riots and illegal immigration.”
At the news conference, DeSantis was flanked by dozens of members of the Florida State Guard, Florida National Guard and Florida Highway Patrol. A private jet registered to a private company was parked behind them and a podium that read: “Stop the invasion.”
“We at the Florida State Guard are postured to deliver rapid response to any and all threats to public safety wherever and whenever need arises,” said Mark Thieme, the director of the State Guard.
Since DeSantis first proposed reviving the World War II-era force, its size and scope have changed dramatically.
It was originally sold as a 200-member group of volunteers who would pass out water bottles and other supplies after emergencies within Florida. But DeSantis’ administration urged lawmakers to grow it to 400 members, then 1,500.
Instead of volunteers in polo shirts and khakis, State Guard members now wear camouflaged uniforms and are referred to as “soldiers.” Last year, lawmakers approved allowing the governor to send them to out-of-state emergencies and assigned more than $100 million to buy planes and boats.
In the fall, State Guard leadership sent some members to a combat training facility, where they learned how to use rifles and pistols, treat “massive hemorrhages” and practice “aerial gunnery.” It is unclear whether members of that specialized unit will be sent to Texas.
The expansion has come with growing pains. It’s had three directors in 18 months, and only graduated about 120 members during a single month-long training class in June last year.
During that training, military veterans who volunteered for the State Guard quit over its militia-like training. One retired Marine Corps captain called local police after he said he was roughed up by a Florida National Guard trainer.
This year, Republican lawmakers are advancing legislation that would allow the State Guard to be activated during a “period of civil unrest, or any other time deemed necessary and appropriate.”
Some Democrats have balked at the expansion.
“We’re basically making this much more than I think was ever explained to the Legislature,” Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs, said last week. “It’s just a year after year creep.”
Republican lawmakers appear to be hesitating at the idea of assigning more money for the State Guard, however.
Although DeSantis has asked for 39 positions and a $41 million budget for the unit, the Senate’s proposed budget released this week has no money for the State Guard.
“I think the Senate’s position is that we have a lot of unspent money,” Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said this week.
The House’s proposed budget would pay for 11 full-time positions — the same as last year — and only $63,000 in expenses.
This is a developing news story. Check tampabay.com for updates.
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