By Gabe Gutierrez - NBC News
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis travels to Arizona on Wednesday in his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border as a candidate for the Republican nomination for the White House, in a further step to strengthen his iron stance on immigration at the center of his election campaign against former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis plans to meet with Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels and other officials in the border city of Sierra Vista, according to his spokesman, Jeremy Redfern. Like DeSantis, the sheriff has criticized President Joe Biden's border policy.
DeSantis waves at a campaign rally on June 2 in Gilbert, South Carolina.Sean Rayford/Getty Images
DeSantis has been to the right of the former president, who leads polls among Republicans and whose immigration approach in his 2016 campaign and his first term won him the support of the conservative base.
DeSantis has repeatedly praised Trump for his border policies, but in recent weeks has sought to distance himself from him by arguing that he did not do enough in his years in the White House to beef up border security.
Florida authorities confirmed Tuesday that the state last week chartered several flights to ferry migrants from the border to Sacramento, California, after days of facing accusations from California leaders.
A spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management said in a written statement that all migrants traveled of their own volition: "Through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated that they wanted to go to California."
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, told NBC's TODAY show Tuesday that he believes Florida officials committed several crimes in sending migrants to his state and will open an investigation.
DeSantis has not commented on these flights, but his campaign has boasted about the transfers Florida arranged last year to take migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. In addition, the governor last month signed into law a tough anti-immigration law that he promoted and that persecutes irregular migrants in the state. That measure includes a $12 million package to charter flights to resettle immigrants.
DeSantis' trip to Arizona — a battleground state — is part of his tour of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Later this week, he plans to attend fundraisers in Texas cities, attend an event in Oklahoma and speak at the North Carolina Republican Party convention, before heading to Nevada next Saturday.
The Biden administration's handling of the recent influx of migrant arrivals, which has overwhelmed shelters and reception centers across the country, has been criticized even by prominent Democrats, such as New York Mayor Eric Adams.
In the past year, the number of interceptions at the border has reached record numbers. But the latest data from the Office of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reflect a drop of more than 70% since the end of Title 42, the measure activated by the Trump Administration at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that allowed the expulsion of more than two million asylum seekers under the pretext of the health emergency.
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Critics had warned that the opposite would happen, that is, there would be a wave of migrant arrivals at the southern border. While there was a rebound just before, on the night of May 11, the numbers quickly stabilized and then fell sharply.
Cochise County, a historic Old West mining region that includes the site of Wyatt Earp's notorious shooting at the OK Corral, is now hosting another battle, this time over immigration. It has become a place that welcomes conservative politicians who denounce what they see as weak border policies.
In recent years, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and conservative Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake have taken photos in the area. DeSantis hasn't traveled here before, but sent police officers to Arizona in 2021 at the governor's request, according to his office.
DeSantis also sent more than 1,100 Florida National Guard members and agents to Texas last month to help with Operation Lone Star, a border initiative led by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott against immigration.