TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to transport mostly Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this week could hurt the Republican governor in November with a key constituency that the GOP has sought to win over.
The move by DeSantis dominated the radio and television airwaves in South Florida — where large swaths of Hispanic voters live. One Spanish radio host loudly denounced the move and even compared DeSantis’ actions to that of deceased Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who relocated Cubans in the early ‘60s.
Democrat Charlie Crist, who is challenging DeSantis, on Saturday rushed out a new digital ad targeting Hispanics and the Venezuelan community as part of a six-figure buy pounding DeSantis over his attention-getting move.
“From a Miami perspective, it’s a huge mistake,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat challenging incumbent Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.). “All these Republicans — including my opponent — historically talk about socialism and communism and that we are standing up to these horrible dictators. The migrants are fleeing exactly what Republicans say they are fighting against.”
Florida Republicans in recent years have made it a priority to court Venezuelan Americans, many of whom fled their home country in the past decade amid the political and economic turmoil under Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez. It’s a story that has parallels to Cuban Americans — a crucial bloc of support for the GOP — who left their country to escape communism.
The Venezuelan American community in Florida remains a relatively small but growing slice of voters in Florida. Recent estimates have said that there are at least 200,000 Venezuelans in the state.
But on Wednesday, DeSantis facilitated two flights to carry a group of roughly 50 Venezuelan and Colombian migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as part of a push by DeSantis to draw attention to the border policies of President Joe Biden. Many of the migrants are presumed to be seeking asylum after fleeing Venezuela. Some of the migrants told media outlets and immigration activists that they were misled about where they were going. DeSantis has denied this allegation, saying those on the planes gave their consent and were given maps that explained their final destination.
When asked for comment, the DeSantis administration pointed to a previous statement defending the transports.
DeSantis’ actions were widely condemned by Democrats as inhumane while being cheered on by conservatives who contend the surge in immigration is being ignored by Biden.
“I have friends and neighbors who fled Venezuela’s brutal dictator, and to cruelly treat anyone in that spot like a political pawn or fundraising gimmick, is simply repulsive,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) whose own district includes a large contingent of Venezuelan Americans.
The move came less than 24 hours before Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and other Florida Republicans held their own press conference in front of the White House to denounce Biden’s policies on Latin Americans, including recent overtures by his administration to Maduro’s regime.
While DeSantis staunchly defended his actions in press conferences this week, some Florida Republicans have been cautious in their remarks. Scott himself sidestepped a question about whether DeSantis should have transported the migrants, instead saying Biden should do more to secure the border.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), during a West Palm Beach appearance, said he didn’t know the details of what DeSantis did, according to television station WPTV. But he added that “people want to freak out about Martha’s Vineyard, whatever, but I’m telling you that the bigger problem here is not that 50 people were sent to Martha’s Vineyard. The bigger problem here is that every single day thousands of people enter the country illegally.”
Daniel Di Martino, a conservative Venezuelan activist and immigration researcher who was born and raised in Venezuela, however, was skeptical that DeSantis’ actions would cause much political blowback for the governor in that community.
“I think the goal is for it to look like a mess,” Di Martino said. “I think it’s going to be successful.”
Di Martino noted that new visa requirements — which Mexico imposed on Venezuelans — had forced more Venezuelans to take a longer and more dangerous route to the Southern border. Reuters reported that those new rules were adopted at the urging of the Biden administration to deal with a spike in the number of Venezuelans coming into the United States.
“I think everybody is a hypocrite,” said Di Martino.
One problem for Democrats seeking to create a wedge between Republicans and Venezuelan Americans is that the Biden administration’s ongoing overtures to Maduro have not been received well by those who previously escaped the country. Even some Florida Democrats were upset in May when the Biden administration said it would ease sanctions on Maduro’s government if he held talks with U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
“The smart people understand what’s going on,” said Ernesto Ackerman of Independent Venezuelan American Citizens and a GOP committeeman in Florida. “It’s not a problem of Gov. DeSantis. It’s a problem of the federal government.”
DeSantis said Friday that the flights this week were just the “beginning” and he welcomed the attention that was now being placed on the immigration policy put in place by the Biden administration.
“I’m glad that this has now put this issue on the front burner, because it really should be on the front burner,” DeSantis said. “Because this is an intentional policy that is having really negative implications not just for border communities but for communities all across the country.”
DeSantis’ hard line on immigration is not new. He pushed to pass a law to ban “sanctuary cities” or communities that refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The governor had been talking about busing migrants to other locations — including Biden’s home state of Delaware — since late last year.
DeSantis also convinced the Republican-led state Legislature to include $12 million — which is coming from interest earned off the billions provided to Florida through the American Rescue Plan — in its new budget to relocate migrants. Taddeo pointed out that she tried to amend an immigration bill this past session to include language that would prohibit the state from transporting migrants if they were trying to flee a communist or socialist country.
“I tried to warn them,” said Taddeo, who contended that many South Florida Republicans are remaining relatively quiet about what the governor did.
“They know this is absolutely toxic in Miami-Dade County because it’s showing their true colors,” she said. “All this outrage about socialism and communism — it’s all fake.”
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