DeSantis opens new fight with Biden over immigration

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday escalated his fight with the Biden administration over immigration, directing Florida agencies to stop assisting federal authorities in relocating migrants.

The Republican governor also called on state law enforcement officials to “audit” large private companies to ensure their workers are legally permitted to work in the U.S. and encouraged Florida authorities to detain buses, planes or cars “reasonably believed” to be transporting someone who entered the country illegally from the southern border.

DeSantis’ actions were paired with a new lawsuit filed by Attorney General Ashley Moody against Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as well as other top Biden immigration officials that contends federal authorities are flouting immigration laws and that Florida is harmed when detained migrants are released and told to appear at immigration proceedings at a later date — a policy that critics call “catch and release.”

“If you look at what’s happening at the Southern border, it is a total disaster,” said DeSantis who announced his actions at a press conference held in Fort Myers. “This is absolutely a crisis … We are the ones who affected by this and we have to fight back.”

Moody, who like DeSantis is running for re-election next year, also ripped into Biden at Tuesday’s press conference, saying that “Biden is aiding and abetting criminal cartels” due to his administration’s immigration policies. DeSantis contended that the Biden administration policies were “intentional” and “ideological” and designed to reverse actions by former President Donald Trump.

DeSantis, seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, has pushed a hardline on immigration policies in the past, including advocating a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities” as well as a somewhat watered-down requirement that companies screen employees through a federal immigration database. Both DeSantis and Moody visited the Texas border this summer at the same time that Florida sent 250 law-enforcement agents to help local authorities deal with a surge of migrants crossing into the United States.

Florida Republicans were once cautious about immigration, worried it could cost them support among Hispanic voters in the state. But Trump carried the state in 2016 even though he espoused a hardline on immigration — and his stances were echoed two years later on the campaign trail by DeSantis. The issue continues to resonate strongly with GOP voters, who DeSantis will depend on for his re-election next year — and in any Republican primaries beyond.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday she was not aware of the details of Florida’s new lawsuit but said that the Biden administration is open to a “constructive conversation” about immigration laws because the current situation is not “sustainable.” But Psaki also asserted that “we don’t have open borders” and that it is “not accurate” to assert that if someone is given a notice to appear they will “stay long term” in the United States.

During his press conference, DeSantis also said that he has been unable to get any information from Washington about how many migrants were being resettled in Florida in the wake of a surge of people attempting to cross the border.

“We are entitled to know what’s going on,” DeSantis said.

The moves announced on Tuesday mark yet another flashpoint between the Biden administration and Florida Republicans. DeSantis directed Florida to sue federal authorities over cruise ship restrictions and both he and Moody have pledged to challenge any federal vaccine mandate requirements put in place for large employers. DeSantis and Biden have also clashed repeatedly over school mask mandates and the GOP governor recently sharply criticized the Biden administration for its decision to curtail shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments into Florida.

Florida’s lawsuit follows an attempt by Moody last spring to mount a legal challenge against temporary immigration enforcement orders put in place by the Biden administration shortly after the president took office.

The March lawsuit argued the policies could lead to the release of criminals in the state and could force Florida to pay costs associated with helping those who entered the country illegally. A federal judge rejected Florida’s request for a preliminary injunction, asserting at one point that Florida could not base its lawsuits on the “mere threat” of future criminal activity or costs. That ruling has been appealed.

The legal challenge announced Tuesday, which was first reported by Fox News, was filed in federal court in Pensacola and argues that some of those entering the country illegally who are getting released are “gang members” and “drug traffickers exploiting the crisis at the border.”

The lawsuit also asserts that Florida is spending tens of millions to incarcerate criminals who entered the country illegally.

DeSantis’ actions brought swift blowback from some state Democrats. State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, called DeSantis’ announcement “political posturing” and said that his executive order “further shows the governor’s willingness to fuel the politics of hate to gain support for his future presidential ambitions.” Taddeo, whose mother was Colombian, added that “instead of using immigrants as political pawns to score political points with an extremist base of his party, as an elected leader, the governor should instead set a tone and example for our state and country.”

As part of his stepped up focus on immigration, DeSantis also announced he was hiring Larry Keefe, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida and one-time law partner of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to serve as a “public safety czar” who would help the state with its enforcement efforts.

The governor’s decision to order state agencies to not cooperate with federal authorities relocating migrants is quite a contrast from 2019 when the governor pushed for a bill banning “sanctuary cities.” Back then, DeSantis lauded the law because it called for local authorities to cooperate with immigration authorities.

Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for the governor, contended the state doesn’t have to cooperate with the Biden administration because it is “breaking” federal immigration laws.

“Nothing in Florida law requires the state government or local governments to assist in the federal government’s non-enforcement of federal immigration law,” Fenske said in an email. “If the Biden administration began faithfully enforcing the law, we would gladly support its efforts.”

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