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The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune
Patrick Svitek and Renzo Downey

At Texas-Mexico border, Ron DeSantis unveils immigration platform with Trump in mind

From left: U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, stands next to Republican U.S. presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a visit to the border community of Eagle Pass on June 26, 2023.
From left: U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, stands next to Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a campaign stop in Eagle Pass on Monday. (Credit: REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal)

EAGLE PASS — Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, visited the Texas-Mexico border Monday to announce an immigration platform that seeks to challenge former President Donald Trump’s claim to the issue.

Speaking in Eagle Pass, DeSantis promised to “fully deputize all state and local governments” to enforce immigration law if the federal government refuses to. He said a state like Texas would be able to “deport across the border 100%.”

“What we’re saying is no excuses on this,” DeSantis said of his broader platform. “Get the job done. Make it happen. We don’t want hollow rhetoric. We don’t want empty promises.”

DeSantis did not go out of his way to mention Trump in Eagle Pass, but when reporters asked how his proposals — including building a southern border wall — differ from the former president’s, DeSantis noted how little of the wall had been built and said he was surprised to learn that more people had been deported under President Barack Obama than Trump.

“A lot of the things he’s saying, I agree with, but I also think those are the same things that were said back in 2016,” DeSantis said. “We’re not getting a mulligan on this one, OK? We either win the election or this is never going to be fixed, and then once you get in there, you either fix it — because if you don’t fix it this time, I don’t think it’s ever going to get done.”

DeSantis’ platform includes many proposals that already have wide support among Republicans, like boosting Border Patrol pay and reinstating the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy, that required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their applications are pending. The platform also calls for an end to birthright citizenship, something Trump campaigned on in 2016 to much controversy.

But DeSantis said his plan was “more aggressive” than anything Trump has proposed when it came to deputizing local officials to police the border.

DeSantis’ vow to let state and local governments enforce immigration law taps into a simmering political debate in Texas. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott empowered state authorities to return migrants they apprehend to the border, though he has faced pressure from his right to go even further.

Abbott did not join DeSantis in Eagle Pass. A spokesperson for Abbott, Renae Eze, said he was focused on solving the current impasse over property-tax relief within the Legislature.

DeSantis drew about 150 people to a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, where he spoke near large posters reading “No excuses, secure our border, build the wall, stop the invasion.”

DeSantis arrived in Texas on Sunday and toured the border in Eagle Pass. His event Monday morning marked first public campaign appearance in Texas. He visited the state days after launching his campaign last month for a series of private fundraisers.

DeSantis is not the first 2024 contender to tour the border. Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came to the region in April, joined by U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio.

DeSantis repeatedly expressed solidarity with Texans who are dealing with illegal immigration, noting that he has twice sent Florida law enforcement to aid border-security efforts. And he touted his headline-grabbing decision to send about 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

“If you just had 50 down here in South Texas, that would be a good day, right?” DeSantis said.

At the border, DeSantis told reporters that he would authorize law enforcement to use an “appropriate use of force” against drug traffickers and those demonstrating “hostile intent.”

“Of course you use deadly force,” DeSantis said. “Would you let somebody just break into your house and do you harm? No. And I can tell you, in Texas they wouldn’t do that. Try that in Texas.”

The Texas Democratic Party bashed DeSantis’ visit as a sign of his flagging poll numbers, saying he “needs the classic Republican-candidate-at-the-border photo op to try to make himself relevant again.” As for DeSantis’ immigration proposals, state Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa called them “cruel and barbaric” in a statement.

DeSantis’ visit also drew fire from Trump’s allies. A pro-Trump super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., responded to DeSantis’ visit by highlighting his regular praise of Trump’s border policies as president.

“President Donald Trump secured America’s border, just ask Ron DeSantis,” the PAC said in an email to reporters.

DeSantis’ event drew a number of recognizable Texas Republicans. DeSantis was introduced by U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, the Austin Republican who was DeSantis’ first congressional endorser. The crowd included state Rep. Matt Schaefer, the Tyler Republican who chairs the Texas House Freedom Caucus; Cassy Garcia, the 2022 GOP nominee for the 28th Congressional District; and former U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who was wearing a blue “DeSantis 2024” hat.

After the event, Schaefer told The Texas Tribune he was “all in” for DeSantis.

“Ron DeSantis can get it done and Ron DeSantis can win,” Schaefer said. “He’s about getting it done, not the chaos.”

Interviews with audience members showed Republicans are feeling conflicted between DeSantis and Trump.

Kelly Perry, the local representative on the State Republican Executive Committee, left the event still undecided on who she would support in the primary. But she said it made her like DeSantis more.

“This is what we need,” Perry said. “If we do need to have some really strong measures on the border, in four to five years, we won’t recognize our state or our country.”

Perry acknowledged she also liked Trump on the issue of immigration. She praised his “follow-through” on his campaign promises as president, and she said DeSantis has shown a similar steadfastness as governor.

Gary Sapoff, a Navy veteran from Eagle Pass, said he entered the event undecided between DeSantis and Trump and remained so afterward. He had asked DeSantis about treating illegal immigration as an act of war, and DeSantis agreed it is a “violation of sovereignty.”

Afterward, Sapoff suggested he would like to see both DeSantis and Trump on the Republican ticket in November.

“That’s what you call a win-win,” Sapoff said.

Go behind the headlines with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23. Join them to get their take on what’s next for Texas and the nation.

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