TAVERNIER, Fla. - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent dozens of immigrants from Texas to an island off the Massachusetts coast last year in a high-profile effort to highlight illegal immigration on the eve of the midterm elections. But as thousands of Cuban migrants flocked to his own state's shores in recent weeks, he adopted a more cautious approach.
The governor, who is a top Republican presidential prospect, activated the National Guard late last week. But related deployments of soldiers, boat patrols and military planes were slow to materialize. Some residents expressed frustration about the persistent influx of migrants as they recently inspected two large rafts abandoned in a Florida Keys community park.
"If they come over on a boat, they need to turn the boat back around," Ernest Vaile, a Missouri resident who winters in Florida, said as he examined the collection of cracked wood, adding that he didn't blame DeSantis. "From all I know, whatever Gov. DeSantis decides to do will be the right thing."
The episode unfolding in South Florida offers insight into DeSantis' leadership as he eyes a presidential primary campaign against former President Donald Trump. The hard-charging governor has won admiration from many Republican voters nationwide by championing hard-line conservative policies on cultural issues — among them race, gender and immigration. But as he considers a presidential announcement, DeSantis appears to be treading more carefully with immigration developments in his own backyard.
He has been silent on the topic in the days since declaring a state of emergency and activating the National Guard via news release. His office declined to answer several questions about his approach to the Cuban migrants. In the news release, he blamed the Biden administration while offering empathy to the Cubans, a community that typically favors Republicans in U.S. elections.
"Florida has a long history of helping refugees, including Cubans and others fleeing communist regimes, find support after they arrive in the United States," DeSantis said.
While DeSantis is known for embracing Trump’s brash leadership style and even his mannerisms, allies suggest the Harvard-educated former military attorney is more deft at navigating delicate political issues than the former president is.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Trump rival during the 2016 campaign who attended DeSantis' second inauguration last week, offered a warm assessment when asked to evaluate the governor’s approach on hot-button issues like immigration.
"I will say that, overall, Gov. DeSantis has done a good job as governor and Florida is on a roll," Bush told The Associated Press.
DeSantis associates privately believe he will finalize his 2024 decision by the end of March, although a public announcement may not come until early summer. He is eyeing an aggressive conservative policy agenda over the coming months to strengthen his prospective Republican candidacy. As DeSantis moves forward, however, the Cuban migrants pose a test for him.
An estimated 7,400 Cubans have been caught in waters off the coast of Florida trying to seek refuge from their communist island nation over the last five months, a dramatic increase under DeSantis' watch that could leave him vulnerable to criticism from the right.
Failed Florida Republican congressional candidate Laura Loomer, a popular voice among Trump's most fervent supporters, questioned DeSantis' commitment to conservative policies on multiple fronts, especially immigration.
"Thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis, we now have more illegal aliens in our country," Loomer said. "During his time as governor, immigration has actually gotten worse."
Cubans are leaving the island nation in their largest numbers in six decades. More than 6,000 Cubans journeying by sea were caught by federal authorities in the fiscal year between October 2021 and September 2022, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. That's compared with only about 800 the year before.
Meanwhile, illegal crossings by Cubans at the U.S.-Mexico border surged from 39,000 between October 2020 and September 2021 to more than 220,000 between October 2021 and September 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Once captured, the Cubans are generally freed to pursue their immigration cases in the courts, and many head to Florida.
That number may drop under new asylum rules announced by President Joe Biden that now also apply to Cubans.
Cubans have long been granted immigration benefits under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. While some policies changed under President Barack Obama and were not reinstated under Trump, the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba makes it less likely for Cubans to be deported.
Meanwhile, DeSantis' would-be 2024 rivals — and there are many beyond Trump — are quietly hoping the shine of the governor's political star will fade as his status as a leading presidential prospect attracts new scrutiny.
In recent days, an aide to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who is also weighing a presidential bid, criticized DeSantis for supporting a ban on abortion at 15 weeks after conception as insufficiently conservative. The Florida governor has faced related criticism from anti-abortion activists in his own state who have called on him to impose even stricter limits on the procedure.
At the same time, Democratic operatives are combing through DeSantis' record and tracking every appearance to generate content designed to weaken his political standing. American Bridge, a pro-Democrat super PAC known best for producing so-called opposition research, has had a team focused on DeSantis, among other potential 2024 Republican candidates, since October.
"DeSantis believes that he has been tested at the national level, but presidential primaries are a whole different ballgame where perceived small mistakes turn into big problems," American Bridge President Pat Dennis said.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is planning to bolster his conservative bona fides in Florida's upcoming state legislative session, which begins in March and is expected to conclude by May.
It’s unclear what legislation DeSantis will pursue, but the governor in recent weeks has signaled a desire to keep pulling at partisan divides. He isn't expected to face much meaningful opposition in a legislature with a Republican supermajority.
In late December, DeSantis' budget office called on state colleges to submit spending information on programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory, which examines systemic racism. The request could be a prelude to a DeSantis push to slash state funding around what he calls "woke" ideology in state schools. The colleges have to submit the spending data by Friday.
DeSantis also recently made a series of high-profile conservative appointments to the board of trustees of a liberal arts college. Critics worry that he's simply injecting his conservative politics into the state's higher education.
"Is he willing to just burn an institution to the ground and harm the community just to score cheap political points?" asked Andrew Gothard, president of the union United Faculty of Florida.
The governor is set to notch another political victory in his fight against Walt Disney World. With his blessing, Republican lawmakers are expected to pass a sweeping bill to increase state control of the private government operated by the entertainment giant over its property in Florida.
DeSantis last year pushed the legislature to dissolve the Disney government over the company’s objection to the law that critics call "Don’t Say Gay," which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
It's not all red meat for the Republican base, however.
In the final year of his first term, DeSantis orchestrated pay raises for teachers and law enforcement, a minimum wage increase for state workers and various state tax suspensions. The governor also secured billions of dollars for Everglades restoration and other environmental projects. This week, he signed an executive order calling on lawmakers to dedicate $3.5 billion more to similar environmental initiatives.
And on the Cuban immigration front, he has avoided some of the fiery conservative rhetoric that defined his view on the U.S.-Mexico border — at least, so far.
The Florida National Guard announced Wednesday that it was mobilizing 12 military planes and approximately 150 troops to help south Florida authorities respond to "mass migration impacting the area."
"The Florida National Guard supports and follows orders of our Commander in Chief, Governor Ron DeSantis," the Guard said in a statement.