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The Hill
The Hill
1 Jul 2023
Rafael Bernal and Julia Manchester


NextImg:Trump, DeSantis seek to prove who’s tougher on immigration

Former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are engaged in an escalating back-and-forth over their respective immigration plans, competing over who presents the more hawkish vision on the border.

On Tuesday, DeSantis rolled out his immigration proposal, titled “Mission Stop the Invasion No Excuses,” a clear jab at Trump’s handling of the issue during his administration. DeSantis’s plan calls for an end to birthright citizenship, and he has endorsed the use of “deadly force” against migrants suspected of drug trafficking. 

The plan has drawn Trump’s ire, with the former president accusing DeSantis of ripping off his policy. 

“Well, his plan is my plan,” Trump told Semafor on Tuesday. “I mean, he’s basically copied everything I said — catch and release, finish the wall.”

On top of Trump’s response, his campaign spokesman Jason Miller tweeted side-by-side photos of Trump at the border wall and DeSantis building a wall with blocks with his children in a 2018 campaign ad, writing “Ron DeSantis is the Fisher Price version of President Trump.” 

The pro-Trump super PAC Maga Inc. echoed Trump, mockingly saying in a statement it was “flattering” that DeSantis was copying the former president.

The two campaigns have thrown increasingly acrimonious darts at each other since DeSantis’s rollout.

On Tuesday, DeSantis traveled to the border community of Eagleton, Texas, where he unveiled the plan before taking it on the road to the early primary state of New Hampshire. 

“We’re actually going to build the wall,” DeSantis said, taking a swipe at Trump while speaking to voters in Hollis, N.H., on Wednesday. “A lot of politicians chirp. They make grandiose promises and then fail to deliver the actual results. The time for excuses is over. Now is the time to deliver results and finally get the job done.”

Although the early primary state is not a border state, the issue has proven to be salient among its voters. 

“Immigration is always right up there, and it’s not just Republicans; it does cross party lines as well,” said New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R), who is supporting DeSantis. 

Osborne, who was present at DeSantis’s stop in the state earlier this week, noted the overlap between DeSantis’s and Trump’s plans. 

“There’s going to be overlap because some of it is just common sense,” Osborne said. “The real issue is that Gov. DeSantis actually has a real track record on delivering on things he says he’s going to do.” 

“We can elect a president and they can do a great job, but if they’re going to just leave and turn the reigns over to someone who’s not going to do a good job, then what is the lasting benefit of that?” Osborne said. 

The Trump campaign responded Thursday with a “comprehensive overview of the most groundbreaking reforms ushered in by the Trump Administration” — a 31-page document touting the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

The Trump campaign’s document depicts his policies as a unique success story, attacking former Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton, as well as the Biden administration.

“As President, Donald J. Trump mobilized every resource of the federal government to reverse the destructive open borders policies of his lawless predecessors and implement the first-ever immigration system that served the best interests of America and its workers,” reads the document.

Meanwhile, DeSantis is looking to put Trump on the defensive over his signature issue.

DeSantis is pushing the GOP envelope on attacking Trump, and he is going further than others in his party have gone by adopting “invasion” rhetoric, very clearly marked as off-bounds by immigrant advocates.

In doing so, DeSantis has accomplished two goals: setting a hawkish stance on immigration and publicly angering liberals.

In May, DeSantis previewed what his presidential campaign’s immigration plan would look like when he signed an immigration overhaul into law in Florida. The law hones in on the state’s migrant relocation program and limits immigrants without legal status from obtaining social services. The Florida governor’s supporters say his campaign swagger is a sign he would outdo Trump on implementing hawkish immigration policies.

“Gov. DeSantis has a plan to do on his first day in office what the Trump admin couldn’t do after four years: secure the border. His plan calls for a declaration of a national emergency, the end of phony asylum claims and to finally finish the border wall — without excuses or empty rhetoric. His commitment to getting the job done is the reason why there is so much enthusiasm behind Gov. DeSantis,” said Dave Vasquez of Never Back Down, a super PAC promoting DeSantis.

Never Back Down is run by Ken Cuccinelli, who was among the top immigration ideologues in the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration.

The similarities between the two campaigns in tone, messaging and staffing are no coincidence, according to Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.

​​”When it comes to policy in the Republican primary, the policy is already set, it’s the ‘America First’ suite of policies. And that means being tough on illegal immigration,” said O’Connell.

That puts DeSantis in a difficult position, O’Connell said, because the GOP base looks to Trump to set the standard.

“Donald Trump is seen as the gold standard within the Republican primary. And when Ron pushes back and says, ‘Well, you didn’t get this accomplished,’ and Trump basically says, ‘Yeah, because I’m being blocked by the Democrats and even some Republicans.'”

The tit-for-tat has immigration advocates on edge, in part because it’s changing what’s acceptable to publicly say about immigrants.

“There’s just a continual level of escalation that they’re feeling, so that they can show this very specific base, ‘Well, actually, I’m the true nativist here. I am like the most extreme version of what you want,'” said Zachary Mueller, who monitors Republican rhetoric on immigration as the political director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it. I think what we’re really going to see is a nativist arms race here, as they move further and further to the extremes over the next year as they compete for these primaries.”

The escalating feud also raises questions about how either candidate would fare in a general election.

Republicans see an opportunity to translate the fire-and-brimstone language to a general electorate if it focuses on the border and treads carefully on the humanitarian aspect of immigration.

“The general election voters’ mindset, particularly the independents, they’re thoroughly unhappy with Biden and anyone who’s pushing a change of course to [the border] is going to be in good standing,” O’Connell said.

“Now the question is, Republicans are wiser to phrase it as ‘border security’ than say, ‘illegal immigration’ because remember, when we talk about the word migrant, when we talk about the word immigrant, it’s a word that has different meanings depending on the audience who you’re talking to.”

But immigration advocates say DeSantis is stuck in a Catch-22, where he has no choice but to push to the right to appeal to primary voters, rolling out proposals that will hurt him in a general election.

“For somebody like Ron DeSantis, who is trying to oust and overcome the former president of the United States in a primary — which is always going to be a difficult thing — he’s trying to convince that very activist, core, radicalized part of the base that he is actually the true spirit of what they actually want, and Donald Trump is just a reflection of them. I think DeSantis is trying to say, ‘I’m one of you,'” Mueller said.

“There’s probably some real concerns about a general election strategy,” he added. “How much is it going to cost you if you were focused on what may generously be 30 percent of the population in [a primary], and then you have to go to a general election and, you know, win 50 percent?”