By Gabe Gutierrez and Bianca Seward - NBCNews
During his first full week of campaigning as a candidate to represent the Republican Party in the 2024 presidential elections, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis emphasized his record of immigration policies, defending that he is a true conservative in the matter to differentiate himself from his main rival in the primaries, former President Donald Trump.
In an interview with conservative radio host Ben Shapiro, DeSantis said Trump "is a different person than he was in 2015, 2016." And the governor's decision to send more than 1,100 state agents and National Guard members to Texas' border with Mexico signals a willingness to move to Trump's right on an issue long seen as one of Trump's core political messages.
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"I think that's probably the case," said Ken Cuccinelli, a former top Department of Homeland Security official during the Trump administration who founded the Never Back Down super PAC in favor of DeSantis. "[Trump] accomplished far less than he could have achieved. And that would happen again" if he won again, he said.
Immigration focused much of DeSantis' campaign speech in recent days to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"I've heard complaints about [the southern border] for so long and yet today it's worse than ever," DeSantis said Friday in Lexington, South Carolina. "We're going to close the border. We're going to build a border wall. We're going to stop mass migration and we're going to hold Mexican drug cartels accountable for the carnage they've unleashed in this country."
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Earlier this week, he went even further when at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, he praised the controversial planes he chartered to ferry irregular migrants from Texas to the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.
"You can't have a normally functioning society if you don't have control over the territorial integrity of your country," he said.
His rhetoric on immigration echoes some of the statements Trump made during the early days of his 2016 presidential campaign, an issue that struck a chord with the Republican base and helped catapult him into the White House.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," Trump said in making his candidacy official in 2015. "They're sending people who have a lot of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They bring drugs. They bring crime. They are rapists. And some, I suppose, are good people," he said, one of his most famous and controversial phrases on the subject.
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DeSantis in Iowa referred to some migrants as "criminal aliens" and alleged that several "are on the terrorist watch list." While he has been careful not to mention Trump by name in his campaign speech, he has made no secret of his frustration with Trump for failing to deliver on his election promises during his four-year term.
"I've heard a lot of promises about dealing with border security for years and years and years," DeSantis said Thursday in Manchester, New Hampshire. "And what I can commit to is this: When I'm president, we'll be the ones to finally bring this matter to a conclusion," he announced.
This positioning appears to be part of a broader attempt to attack Trump on his right flank on culture war issues that could be crucial to attracting conservative voters, particularly in the Iowa caucuses.
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DeSantis has already broken with Trump on issues such as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic led by Trump, as well as the so-called war on the woke movement (which combats social injustices).
After the former president said last week that he doesn't like the term woke and that many people can't define it, DeSantis countered by insisting that it stands for "cultural Marxism" and that he considers being woke to be like "putting merit and achievement behind identity politics." The showdown comes after the candidates discussed DeSantis' ongoing dispute with Disney.
"I think, unfortunately, he's decided to move left on some of these issues," DeSantis told reporters Tuesday in Clive, Iowa.
For its part, the Trump campaign has unleashed a series of increasingly forceful attacks on the Florida governor since the launch of his campaign, including mocking the connection problems that the broadcast of his election campaign launch had through Twitter Spaces and even highlighting the inconsistent pronunciation of DeSantis' last name.
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"How can Ron DeSantis show up anywhere when he can't even properly run his own political operation?" asked Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, in a text message.
"The fact is, Trump built hundreds and hundreds of miles of wall, implemented the [immigration] Remain in Mexico policy, stopped the flow of deadly drugs into communities, and fought gangs and cartels so they wouldn't terrorize Americans. Trump has laid out a bold strategy for his second term, which includes destroying the drug cartels once and for all, stopping the invasion of the southern border, ending catch and release, and eliminating asylum fraud."
Trump continues to highlight immigration as a central issue in his campaign. In 2015 and 2018, he advocated ending birthright citizenship, and now says he will sign an executive order to do so if re-elected.
In a recently released campaign video, the former president used anti-immigrant rhetoric to highlight his reasoning for the ban on allowing children of immigrants who lack permanent legal status to automatically become citizens if they are born here: "Who wants people who are very sick to come into our country? People from mental institutions coming into our country?" he asked.
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DeSantis has made his position on immigration clear in recent times, culminating in the passage of one of the toughest laws that persecutes illegal immigrants.
SB 1718, which takes effect July 1, requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to include a question about a patient's immigration status on admission forms. In addition, the rule increases penalties for human trafficking offenses and expands the use of E-Verify, the federal database that employers can use to check job eligibility.
"There's a sense of panic," said Misael Santana, pastor of a church in Florida that serves immigrants without permanent legal status, "people are more afraid now than they are with Trump."
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While the shift to the right on immigration may appeal to more conservative voters in GOP primaries, it is likely to be difficult to convince independents and moderate Democrats in an election.
Yvette Cruz, communications coordinator for the Florida Farmworkers Association, told NBC News that migrant workers are already quitting their jobs and leaving the state, raising concerns about the likely labor shortages. "Who's going to do the work that no one else is doing?" he asked.
Even some conservative voters in South Florida are uneasy. Homero Cruz is a Trump supporter who fully supported the Republican mogul's immigration policies, but says DeSantis' are "a big mistake."
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"I work in construction," he explained, "and there are a lot of people who need work and are willing to work. And obviously I can't hire them because they don't have a work permit. So we have to fix this problem."
A woman named Lesby, who declined to give her last name for fear of deportation because she is in the United States irregularly, said she pays taxes and hasn't seen her family in Honduras for 16 years.
"We just want to work freely," he said, "we don't want to be afraid that every time you leave the house something might happen." Despite the new immigration law, he has decided to stay: "This is my state, my heart, where I put down roots. And that's why we're going to keep fighting here."