Eric Gay/AP
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a town hall meeting in Eagle Pass, Texas, Monday, June 26, 2023.
Eagle Pass, Texas CNN  — 

In his first major policy rollout of his 2024 presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday proposed a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration, including sending the US military to the border and mass detention and deportation of undocumented people.

DeSantis would also end birthright citizenship and build a wall at the southern border, resurfacing two ideas once championed by his chief rival for the GOP nomination, Donald Trump.

The immigration platform as written offers a harsh approach toward the country’s undocumented population and the southern border. Described by DeSantis, though, the execution would be even more severe and would test the legal boundaries that have long defined who has the right to be in the United States and how the government can address those who do not.

Speaking here in Eagle Pass on Monday, DeSantis said he would allow the use of deadly force against people who attempt to cross into the US by cutting through border structures. He agreed with a man in the audience who likened the flow of undocumented migrants to “an act of war” that would require a military response. DeSantis also proposed giving states the power to “declare an invasion” and deport people on their own.

US courts have repeatedly ruled that regulating immigration is a federal responsibility. That principle was seemingly affirmed last week in part when the US Supreme Court sided 8-1 against Texas and Louisiana in their lawsuit over the Biden administration’s immigration arrest and deportation guidelines.

“If the feds have the responsibility to do immigration, and they decide to just not do it, then are we just helpless, and we don’t have the laws enforced at all?” DeSantis said. “I think the states have a role to play. I can tell you as president, we’re gonna fully deputize all state and local governments to be able to enforce it.”

Through more relentless and austere immigration policies – including blocking most asylum cases, forcing people to remain in Mexico while their cases are reviewed and threatening harsh punishments for illegal entrants – DeSantis insists he can slow the flow of migrants into the US, a promise that will challenge historical precedent.

“You’re going to see a huge, huge reduction in the number of people who are going to try to do this going forward,” he said.

DeSantis’ early emphasis on immigration as a GOP presidential candidate is the latest attempt by the Florida governor to seize one of the defining issues of Trump’s political playbook as his own.

The tagline for his platform – “no excuses” – invokes DeSantis’ chief criticism of the Trump presidency as a period of unmet promises. Over the weekend, his campaign tweeted a clip of Trump promising “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” with the comment: “Trump ran on this same promise in 2016, but ended up deporting fewer illegals than Barack Obama.” Teasing the announcement over the weekend, the DeSantis campaign released a video that blamed the Biden administration for the state of the border, but did not spare Trump’s four-year term when criticizing the perceived lack of action over the last decade.

Trump, as a candidate in 2016, famously vowed to build a wall at the southern border and have Mexico pay for it. He ended his first term having constructed about 100 miles of new wall, the majority of which replaced previous construction. Trump also said he would end so-called birthright citizenship, but ran into the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which grants citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States.” He has revived the promise once again in his campaign to win back the White House.

DeSantis in his policy plan suggests that the plain reading of the 14th Amendment is “inconsistent with the original understanding” and says he would “force the courts and Congress to finally address the failed policy,” though he doesn’t elaborate how.

Unlike Trump, DeSantis did not explicitly insist Mexico will pay for a wall. But he said he will station troops at the border until it’s complete and also says a DeSantis administration would collect “tax remittances from illegal aliens” and penalize countries that attempt to evade collection.

As DeSantis visited the border, Trump’s campaign sent out a news release reiterating his promise to sign an executive order to end birthright citizenship. The campaign accused the Biden administration of unraveling his efforts to address the issue – a clear rebuttal to DeSantis’ suggestions that Trump didn’t do enough during his tenure.

Jason Miller, an adviser to Trump’s campaign, posted to Twitter side-by-side pictures: one of Trump standing next to a border wall and another of a still shot from a DeSantis 2018 campaign ad where he encourages his infant child to “build the wall.” The ad, which aired during the GOP primary for governor, focused on Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis.

“Ron DeSantis is the Fisher Price version of President Trump,” Miller said.

DeSantis, when asked how he differed from Trump, insisted that he would make the border a priority from day one.

“For us, it’s going to be a national emergency on day one. This is going to be mobilizing all available assets on day one. We have a plan for all the different levers of authority that we have to be able to bring this to bear,” DeSantis said Monday at the Rio Grande River.

As governor, DeSantis has often waded into the country’s immigration debate. Last September, he orchestrated two flights to carry migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in an operation that drew widespread condemnation from Democrats and immigration advocates but earned him considerable praise from conservative media. He followed up those efforts earlier this month with two more flights that sent migrants from El Paso, Texas, to Sacramento, California. DeSantis in his four plus years leading Florida has also pushed new laws banning sanctuary cities and requiring employers to check the eligibility of its workforce, and he has sent Florida law enforcement and the National Guard to the southern border to aid in Texas enforcement efforts.

DeSantis has highlighted those efforts often on the campaign trail in his first month running for president. Monday’s announcement is his first attempt at a more forward-looking approach to an issue that has vexed political leaders for decades.

As he has on other issues so far, DeSantis is promising an approach far to the right of the rest of the GOP field while vowing to be more effective than Trump. It’s a strategy that DeSantis allies have committed to as they navigate a divided GOP field and a base still enamored by the former president even as Democrats hope it makes the Florida governor less palpable to general election voters.

“Ron DeSantis has repeatedly used young children and families as pawns in his shallow political stunts to pander to the MAGA base,” Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “This latest plan is more of the same: political gimmicks that are merely an echo of the same cruel and callous policies of the Trump administration that broke our immigration system. DeSantis’ hollow talking points won’t distract voters from the fact that his desperate MAGA candidacy is more concerned with appeasing the right-wing fringes than actually solving problems for the American people.”

DeSantis also said he would end the so-called “catch and release” policy that allows some non-violent individuals to live in the United States while they await a court hearing on their immigration and asylum claims. Instead, DeSantis’ proposal calls for the detention of undocumented people until their hearing date, a policy that would likely lead to tens of thousands of people held by the US government for an indefinite amount of time.

DeSantis is also vowing to deport “criminal aliens.” His proposal did not say if a “criminal alien” includes anyone who is not in the US legally or undocumented individuals convicted of a crime while here. DeSantis would also deport people who overstay their visas. According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 850,000 foreign visitors overstayed their authorized stay just in 2022.

DeSantis also vowed to hold Mexican drug cartels accountable by authorizing sanctions on leaders and other entities, as well as strengthening penalties for those who traffic fentanyl and declaring them “transnational criminal organizations.”

“If the Mexican government drags its feet, DeSantis will reserve the right to operate across the border to secure our territory from Mexican cartel activities. If the Mexican government won’t stop cartel drug manufacturing, DeSantis will surge resources to the Navy and the Coast Guard and block precursor chemicals from entering Mexican ports,” the proposal reads.

While speaking in Maverick County, Texas, on Monday, he went further, saying his administration would authorize law enforcement to use deadly force against cartel operatives and migrants believed to be involved in illegal drug trafficking that break through the border wall.

“We will use all levers at our disposal to win the fight,” DeSantis said. “If somebody is breaking through the border wall – which they are doing in other parts – demonstrating hostile intent or hostile action, you have to be able to meet that with the appropriate use of force.”

When pressed by a reporter if that meant shooting at someone, DeSantis replied, “Of course, of course you use deadly force. I mean how would you let somebody – I mean, would you just let someone break into your house and do you harm?”

In addition, DeSantis will impose penalties on sanctuary jurisdictions that “try to thwart federal immigration law” by cutting off “hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to them.”