Column: Hey DeSantis, real tough guys don’t use vulnerable immigrants as political pawns

a man in a vest and a button-down points
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event on May 31 in Salix, Iowa.
(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crass stunt of flying desperate immigrants to California and dumping them on the doorstep of a Catholic Diocese headquarters showed us one thing: He’s not fit to be America’s president.

It’s not because of his sensible view that we must gain more control of our southern border. Any rational person would agree that the border is too porous.

Members of Congress are trapped in their political silos and can’t muster the courage to venture out and compromise on substantive immigration reform. Both parties exploit the issue in order to fire up their political bases.


What makes DeSantis unfit for the Oval Office is how he cavalierly he treated hapless people as political pawns in a crude, uncompassionate effort to bolster his flagging campaign for the Republican presidential nomination while playing “gotcha” with California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Really, do we want a commander in chief who plays petty, reckless games with our adversaries? A president, say, who buzzes a Chinese warship as payback for a Chinese destroyer cutting across the bow of an American Naval vessel?

Rash, stubborn, impetuous presidents can create all sorts of havoc, including war.

Also, do we want a president who treats the most vulnerable people among us as political chess pieces? Who wastes taxpayers’ money trying to show up a nagging critic such as Newsom?

That said, California’s governor also has not shown statesmanlike qualities in recent months by goading DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other red state leaders.

Rather than focusing full-time on the California problems he was elected to solve — homelessness, unaffordable housing, potential wildfires — Newsom has been sporadically and loudly critiquing the conservative policies of other states.

The consensus of political pundits is that Newsom is trying to position himself to run for president, if not next year, in 2028. He denies it and I believe him. But he does obviously want to be a national torchbearer for progressive causes.


If that’s his priority, then he should run next year for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Meanwhile, to prove his effectiveness as a leader, he should spend more time on the public business he was assigned.

Newsom’s latest attention-grabber last week was to announce he’ll lead an effort to amend the U.S. Constitution with a specific set of gun controls. It has no chance of being adopted.

But it makes a nice nationwide talking point for Democratic voters and a lucrative fundraising tool for his new federal political action committee: the Campaign for Democracy. In fact, his PAC immediately began using the proposed constitutional amendment to solicit donations.

Don’t get me wrong, Newsom is absolutely justified in attacking DeSantis for messing with California’s airspace and unloading 36 undocumented immigrants on the capital city of Sacramento.

“Kidnapping charges?” Newsom pondered in a tweet, calling the Florida governor a “small, pathetic man.”

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta pretty much ruled out charging DeSantis or anyone else with kidnapping last week.


“Kidnapping requires force or fear,” Bonta told me. “We’re not seeing that at this point. .. I am seeing deception, false representation, unkept promises. Basically lies.

“And lying to move individuals hundreds of miles west, that’s deception. ... It could be the basis for civil or criminal liability — subject to a year or more prison time.”

For who? “It could be anybody from the governor [down],” Bonta said.

“They [immigrants] were treated cruelly by an official state action. They were told — the ones I spoke to — that if they got on the plane they would get jobs and help with food and shelter. There was never any intention to do any of that. ... That’s not how you treat people.”

DeSantis, after initially being silent about his involvement, finally fessed up and defended the action. He asserted that California deserves the immigrants because it’s a so-called sanctuary state that restricts local law enforcement involvement in federal efforts to deport people living here illegally.

“The border should be closed,” DeSantis said. “But if there‘s a policy to have an open border, then I think the sanctuary jurisdictions should be the ones that have to bear that.”

So, as president, would he deploy jumbo military troop transports to fly thousands of undocumented immigrants from the Texas border to California?


As governor, DeSantis got the Florida Legislature to authorize $22 million in tax money to fly immigrants from red states into blue states. The California-bound immigrants were picked up in El Paso. They weren’t even in Florida — and were none of the Sunshine State’s business.

Does this help DeSantis politically? Especially in California’s March 5 presidential primary, where the biggest bloc of Republican convention delegates — 169 — is at stake?

“If he’s going to run as the culture warrior, it gives him some cheap applause on the trail,” says Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican consultant and co-director of the Center for the Political Future at USC. “But it hurts him in a national election” if he should win the GOP nomination.

The key to winning the California primary, however, is to gain momentum by first beating former President Trump in Iowa or New Hampshire, Murphy says. “We’ll follow the leader.”

Early independent polls show Trump far ahead of DeSantis among California Republican voters.

A survey released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California also found that 63% of likely voters believe immigrants to be more of a benefit than a burden. But Republicans are the outliers — 74% of them regard immigrants as a burden.


“DeSantis is playing to the worst instincts,” says GOP consultant Mike Madrid. “It’s all theater. The shrinking number of Republicans in California are going to cheer him on. And Democrats in Florida will cheer on Gavin Newsom.

“It’s smart politics and bad governing.”

And not worthy of a potential president.