How salient will the border ‘crisis’ prove as an election issue in November?

Immigration is ‘something that Republicans continually run on’

By: - October 17, 2022 7:00 am

A Haitian father carries his children across the Rio Grande into Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 23, 2021, from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Florida is home to millions of immigrants who have gained citizenship and become eligible to vote. Other migrants continue to flee other countries in hopes of securing a better life, education, and living conditions for their families.

In fact, the American Immigration Council estimates that, in 2022, 2,651,000 eligible voters in Florida are immigrants.

“That makes Florida one of the most immigrant-heavy voter states when it comes to eligible voters,” Andrew Lim, director of research for the council, said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix.

“That probably may not be surprising, given the huge metro areas like Miami, Orlando, and even up in Jacksonville. Those are all fast-growing cities and areas that attract not only Americans but also immigrants as well. “

Within that context, Gov. Ron DeSantis flights of asylum seekers, mostly from Venezuela, to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., sparked outrage from immigration advocates and Democrats across the nation.

And with the midterm elections looming in November, the airlift and the overall issue of immigration have taken center stage, as many Republicans continue to point to a U.S. border “crisis.”

For quite some time, DeSantis, a Republican seeking reelection, has been criticizing President Joe Biden for allegedly creating an “open” border. He will face Democrat Charlie Crist in November.

Lim, of the immigration council, acknowledged that many immigrants have fled other countries to seek better jobs and affordable living across the state. “Florida has a very prominent immigrant population,” Lim said. “They are also a very diverse immigrant population.”

But for all of the issue’s prominence this year, how many votes will it swing?

Based on a poll in mid-September by Spectrum News-Siena College, only 7 percent of the likely voters surveyed in Florida deemed immigration their most important issue. (The margin for error was +/- 4.5 percent).

DeSantis’ airlifts drew 49 percent support among all voters in the poll, with 87 percent of Republicans, 50 percent of independents, and 10 percent of Democrats in favor. But 51 percent of Latino voters opposed the policy, while 42 percent were in favor.

In an email to the Phoenix last week, Natasha Sutherland, constituencies director for DeSantis Watch, an anti-DeSantis political group, argued that immigration will be important to Florida voters. She stressed the importance of “choosing a candidate for governor who values caring for those in need, a trait Ron DeSantis clearly lacks.”

“As a first-generation American, I’m appalled to see the governor’s cheap political stunt luring migrants, including families and children, with false promises of aid which does nothing to address the reasons folks are coming in the first place,” Sutherland said.

“Ron DeSantis makes a mockery of freedom-seekers fleeing authoritarian dictatorships so he can distract us from his extreme and cruel agenda as Florida’s governor.”

‘DeSantis doesn’t truly care about people’

David Metellus, director of policy and politics for the Florida Immigration Coalition, said in a phone interview that the Martha’s Vineyard controversy may hurt DeSantis.

“It shows that DeSantis doesn’t truly care about people. What he did was he separated families,” Metellus said. “He kept people away — people who are trying to seek a better life. Stunts like this just draw attention to the type of extremism that the governor represents.”

He added: “Misappropriating taxpayer dollars that were sent down from the federal government for COVID relief to uplift the political stunt for the governor is just not the proper way for Florida to be doing things.”

But in Florida, a large Cuban population leans conservative, and many of them “do get a fast-track to permanent residency, and eventually citizenship,” Lim said.

“So, they have made up a longstanding bloc in Florida politics and tend to vote Republican and at least more split than other groups,” he said.

“The one note of caution I would put around this data is not to assume that just because you have a more diverse electorate means that one [political] party or the other can just assume that people will vote a certain way because of who they are. I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done and it’s probably more of a challenge to figure how best to reach people where they are.”

‘Jeopardizes the safety of all Americans’

As for immigration policy on a federal level, a federal law enforced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Title 42, was invoked by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 to “achieve its long-desired goal of shutting the border to asylum seekers,” according to a memo from the American Immigration Council.

The rationale was to block spread of the coronavirus.

The Biden administration had announced the termination of the policy in May but a Louisiana court temporarily blocked it from ending, allowing continued authority of border patrol officers to deny entry at the border to migrants.

Many Republicans, including Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, argue that securing the border is a major issue in the United States and that rescinding Title 42 would result in a massive influx of illegal immigrants.

“The current crisis at the Southwest border jeopardizes the safety of all Americans,” Kylie Mason, Moody’s press secretary, said in an email to the Phoenix. “The attorney general is taking legal action against the Biden administration for failing to secure the border and will continue to ensure the federal government follows public-safety immigration law.”

In response to problems at the Southwest border, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it will partner with Mexico to strengthen the process of border entry by creating new checkpoints, resources, and boosting personnel, as well as cracking down on human smuggling.

DHS officials noted that the effort will create a better process for Venezuelans fleeing “the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela,” but those entering without authorization will be returned to Mexico.

“Almost four times as many Venezuelans as last year attempted to cross our southern border, placing their lives in the hands of ruthless smuggling organizations,” DHS said.

‘There’s no border crisis’

Meanwhile, Metellus, of the Florida Immigration Coalition, is skeptical about a so-called border crisis and believes that many GOP lawmakers use it to mobilize their base.

“There’s no border crisis in Florida. And there’s no border crisis in any part of the country,” Metellus said. “The premise for the ‘border crisis’ is that drugs are flowing over the border and immigrants are pouring over the border and that justifies that there is a border crisis.”

He continued: “The concept that immigration as an issue is being fueled by the border crisis is just not true because the facts don’t bear that out. It’s something that Republicans continually run on but, again, it’s something that rile people up and it gets them going without necessarily knowing the facts.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.