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The Ugly Arc From Arizona’s Jan Brewer To Florida’s Ron DeSantis Gets More Violent

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In chilling remarks meant to make him stand out among the anti-immigrant animus of the 2024 GOP presidential primary field, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week called for violence at our border with Mexico. “If cartels are trying to run product into this country, they’re going to end up stone-cold dead,” DeSantis told an Iowa crowd. The line calling for violence disturbingly earned him applause from the audience. 

Just as disturbingly, when questioned on how he’d know who to target, DeSantis said he would know by just looking at them. 

“How do you know you’re using deadly force against the right people?” NBC News correspondent Dasha Burns asked. “Same way a police officer would know,” DeSantis responded. “Same way somebody operating in Iraq would know. You know, these people in Iraq at the time, they all looked the same. You didn’t know who had a bomb strapped to them. So those guys have to make judgments.”

What DeSantis is saying is that he wants to reopen the door to the kind of extreme racial profiling that’s followed previous anti-immigrant initiatives, but where deadly violence is the encouraged end result. He also harkens back to the Arizona of more than a decade ago, when then-Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law one of the most anti-immigrant proposals that the nation had seen in years. There’s a direct line from Arizona to Florida. When Brewer signed S.B. 1070, a reporter grilled her on exactly how local law enforcement – which at the time was under federal investigation for civil rights abuses against communities of color – would determine if someone was in the state legally.

“Please explain what criteria will be used to determine if someone is an illegal immigrant?” a reporter asked. “What does an illegal immigrant look like?” 

“I do not know,” an exasperated Brewer replied (this was actually quite common for her). The response meant any person who isn’t white was at risk, and proved that Brewer knew the “bill relies on racial profiling to target people of color and immigrant communities,” Colorlines reported at the time.

In fact, many of Brewer’s anti-immigrant statements were essentially early drafts of the kind of vile extremism we hear from DeSantis, as well as other GOP candidates, today. “Well, we all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules,” Brewer falsely said in 2010. “They’re coming across our borders in huge numbers. The drug cartels have taken control of the immigration.” More than a decade later, DeSantis has made deadly violence an applause line. He “really is really being quite openly murderous,” John Pfaff, a law professor at New York’s Fordham University, tells The Guardian

In one of her most outlandish claims, Brewer falsely said that local law enforcement had “found bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded.” Violent crime was actually down in Phoenix at the time. Brewer was widely panned for the remark (including by then-State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema), and subsequently walked back the claim, saying that she “misspoke.” Sure, Jan.

But while it’s one thing to mock the wild imaginings of the former governor of Arizona, DeSantis’ deadly vision is no laughing matter. The southern border is already a graveyard for an untold number of desperate migrants who’ve tragically died, and continue to die, attempting to cross into the United States. DeSantis is now calling for even more violent deaths at the borderlands, this time at the hands of the U.S. officers.

In passing the anti-immigrant S.B. 1718 law earlier this year, Florida also appears to be following the same economic fallout seen after Arizona’s passage of S.B. 1070, which began almost immediately. Independent research commissioned by the Center for American Progress “found that lost hotel and lodging revenue to the state from canceled conventions totaled at least $45 million in just the first several months after enactment,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in 2012, further noting nearly 2,800 lost jobs, more than $250 million in lost economic output, and more than $9 million in lost state tax revenue in the time that followed. 

Florida Republicans who helped pass S.B. 1718 have themselves admitted that immigrant workers have fled the state over the law. S.B. 1718 is just one of the draconian and extreme policies passed by state lawmakers who’ve used their office to prop up DeSantis’ flailing presidential aspirations, and are now hurting the state’s communities and economic interests. 

“The fallout is starting to spread to a key economic artery for an income-tax-free state heavily reliant upon tourism taxes: Florida’s convention business,” CNN reported earlier this week. “In recent weeks, at least a dozen organizations have announced plans to either cancel or relocate their upcoming conferences scheduled to take place in Florida, making a statement by having their thousands of attendees and millions of dollars flow into other states deemed safer and more welcoming.”

The Latino, immigrant, and indigenous-led organizing that followed S.B. 1070 is credited with amazing growth in community power and engagement that helped lead to subsequent wins in the state, including the ouster of criminal former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2016, flipping the state blue in the 2020 presidential election, and passing a 2022 a pro-immigrant referendum to provide in-state tuition to all Arizona high school graduates without regard for their immigration status. In Florida, thousands of workers and their allies have rallied in the streets to protest the implementation of S.B. 1718. 

While Floridians are pushing back on their governor’s policies, DeSantis’ endorsement of deadly violence is a critical threat. To play the part of a murderous tough guy to rally this crowd of supporters, he’s harming his state and creating a threat to public safety. While that might play well for a radicalized base he is courting for the primary, recent elections have shown this nativist extremism isn’t the political winner he thinks it is. 

“The latest comments from Ron DeSantis are chilling,” America’s Voice Executive Director Vanessa Cárdenas said in a recent statement. “He’s campaigning on explicit calls for deadly violence and opening the door for vigilantism directed at people along the border based on the color of their skin or the accent they speak with. He has made this call for deadly violence an applause line in his stump speech, a disturbing development that must not be ignored.”