Ron DeSantis' Immigration Playbook Is All About Big Government

Despite his declared commitment to freedom and fiscal conservatism, DeSantis' immigration policies represent a dramatic expansion of government power and spending.


Five years ago, Ron DeSantis was laying out his border policy bona fides on his living room floor. "Build the wall!" he encouraged his young daughter as the two stacked colorful cardboard blocks in a campaign ad. At that point, DeSantis was Florida's top candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination (and then-President Donald Trump's man in the race).

These days, his tone is less playful. "You have a total disaster that's unfolded on that border for over two years," DeSantis said in a February press conference. "They could easily institute different policies. They could finish building the border wall."

DeSantis has taken many notes on the Trump playbook as he prepares for a likely presidential bid. The border wall is a fitting physical analog for the governor's approach to immigration: showy, ineffective, and needlessly cruel. Once you scratch away the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism that surrounds DeSantis' immigration policies, you're left with a dramatic expansion of government power and spending—the sort of thing the governor wastes no time in criticizing when the other side does it. His approach harms immigrants and Floridians alike.

In his new book, The Courage To Be Free, DeSantis blasts Republicans for being too soft on immigration during his congressional tenure, claiming that they "ignored their voters…more consistently and more flagrantly" on that issue than any other. Rep. DeSantis himself co-sponsored a batch of immigration bills that would have increased penalties for first-time illegal entry into the U.S., enhanced penalties and fines for businesses that hired undocumented workers, and directed the secretary of homeland security to build or acquire more migrant detention facilities. In 2015, he introduced a bill that would've barred the U.S. from accepting refugees who were from or had "habitually resided in…any country containing terrorist-controlled territory," with few exceptions. In 2017, DeSantis defended Trump's authority to institute his so-called Muslim ban, saying that he himself would "err on the side of caution because nobody has a right to come here."

After he became governor, DeSantis followed through on a campaign promise to ban sanctuary cities in the state, even though Florida didn't have a single sanctuary city. In 2020, he signed legislation expanding the use of the federal E-Verify system, which checks the immigration status of hired workers; compliance costs employers a significant number of man-hours without yielding much clear benefit. As Reason's Eric Boehm reported in January, DeSantis' administration has already cracked down on businesses that failed to comply with E-Verify requirements, directing state agencies to revoke their licenses. That move—which singled out a property management company and an online portal that serves nurses—will affect native-born Floridians as well as undocumented immigrants.

That isn't the only time DeSantis has overridden local decision making in the name of immigration enforcement. Last June, he signed legislation that would force every law enforcement agency in Florida that operates a county detention facility to enter into a so-called 287(g) partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While most Florida counties were already in the 287(g) program, communities have valid reasons not to participate—including the huge cost. Some counties have had to raise property taxes or endure budget deficits to afford 287(g) costs. What's more, research from the Cato Institute has indicated that 287(g) agreements don't reduce crime but do lead to more assaults against police officers.

DeSantis' splashiest immigration moment was less about policy and more about posturing. In September, the governor arranged for dozens of migrants, mostly Venezuelans, to be flown from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. State lawmakers, federal investigators, and the migrants themselves have issued several accusations about the flights since then, including misuse of state funds, deception, and human trafficking. Still battling legal action over the September scheme, DeSantis recently signed a budget authorizing more funds for migrant transportation. On top of the $35,000 his administration spent to relocate each migrant, the state will pay two law firms up to $1 million as it deals with a class-action lawsuit.

DeSantis' track record has managed to convert at least one erstwhile Trump ally. Ken Cuccinelli, a top official in the Trump-era Department of Homeland Security, announced last week that he was launching a PAC to support DeSantis. "In addition to fighting Joe Biden and the immigration failure he's got on the border, I'm proud to announce that we're starting the Never Back Down PAC to build the way and call on Gov. Ron DeSantis to run for president in 2024," Cuccinelli said on Fox News. "I've talked to people across the country, including people who care an awful lot about this issue, who've been very impressed with Gov. DeSantis' accomplishment in putting a spotlight on the failures of the Biden administration."

In DeSantis' telling, Americans are voting with their feet, favoring Florida's strong economy and track record during the pandemic. "Florida is the fastest growing state in the nation," he said in his State of the State address this month. "We rank number one for net in-migration." But as much as the governor praises Florida's ability to attract people seeking more freedom and better economic opportunities, "he can't, or won't, apply those lessons to the nation as a whole," as Boehm wrote in a Reason profile of DeSantis. For the governor, Americans moving to Florida represent growth and prosperity, while undocumented immigrants moving to Florida, and to the U.S. more broadly, represent "threats" and a "burden" to taxpayers.

As Florida lawmakers return for the legislative session, DeSantis is continuing to develop his tough-on-illegal-immigration image. Just last month, he announced a legislative package that would keep local governments from issuing ID cards to undocumented immigrants and invalidate out-of-state licenses issued to them; require hospitals to collect data on patients' immigration status; prohibit out-of-state tuition waivers for undocumented college students; and make it a felony, punishable by up to five years in jail, to knowingly transport, conceal, or harbor an undocumented immigrant (punishable by up to 15 years in jail if the immigrant is a minor). Per Politico, the package rolls back "protections that less than a decade ago were popular with many Florida Republicans, including DeSantis' own lieutenant governor."

For DeSantis, keeping out immigrants is clearly more important than protecting the rights of either migrants or native-born Floridians. That would make for a costly, intrusive, big-government presidential platform—one that dehumanizes peaceful migrants who could be valuable participants in local communities and local economies.