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DeSantis is prepping for a wave of Haitian migrants. Advocates say he's grandstanding

A wooden migrant boat lies grounded on a reef alongside mangroves, at Harry Harris Park in Tavernier, Fla., last year. The U.S. Coast Guard says that since October, has it intercepted and returned about <a href="https://www.news.uscg.mil/Press-Releases/Article/3704408/coast-guard-repatriates-65-migrants-to-haiti/" data-key="28">130 migrants to Haiti</a>.
Rebecca Blackwell
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AP
A wooden migrant boat lies grounded on a reef alongside mangroves, at Harry Harris Park in Tavernier, Fla., last year. The U.S. Coast Guard says that since October, has it intercepted and returned about 130 migrants to Haiti.

Officials in Florida are worried the chaos and violence in Haiti will trigger a surge in migrants attempting to come to the U.S. by boat. so far, the Coast Guard says it has not seen an increase in the number of Haitians attempting the hazardous crossing.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants to be ready. He's sending more than 250 officers and National and State Guard troops to the southern part of the state. Some Haitian-American leaders believe it's more about politics than preparedness.

More than a half million Haitians live in Florida. For decades, the state has been a primary destination for people fleeing political turmoil and economic hardship on the island. Florida's large Haitian-American community is closely monitoring the crisis. Tessa Petit. who was born and raised in Haiti now directs the Florida Immigrant Coalition, an advocacy group. She's been in touch with people on the island and says, "Folks in Haiti are living in complete panic. Supermarkets don't have food. People are running out of food. There's no electricity. Communication is very difficult. And people are living in fear."

DeSantis says the Guard troops he's sending, along with state law enforcement officers will help intercept any migrants who attempt to come from Haiti to the U.S. by boat and then turn them over to the Coast Guard. "Given the situation that's happening in Haiti," he says, "some brutal reports that are happening, we want to make sure we're protecting Floridians."

DeSantis was speaking at a news conference where he signed measures to crack down on undocumented immigrants in Florida. Later that day, in an interview on Fox News, he again spoke of the potential threat to Florida posed by any surge of migrants from Haiti. "We want to be prepared," he said. "I was asked today at our press conference, 'Why are you doing this when there has not actually yet been a massive influx?' I said, 'What are you supposed to do, wait for it to happen?' So, we're putting our assets in place to be able to defend the state."

The Coast Guard says it has intercepted and returned about 130 migrants to Haiti since October. And it has not seen a rise in interdictions since the recent violence began there.

Petit says she's been disappointed by the way DeSantis and other Republicans are framing a humanitarian crisis for one of the U.S.'s closest neighbors.

"The narrative now is that immigrants are the enemy," she says. "We're the criminals. We're the thieves. We're the drug dealers. It is unfortunate and sad to see that the state that has the largest Haitian community, that's how our governor is responding to it."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he's sending law enforcement officers and Guard troops because "given the situation that's happening in Haiti, some brutal reports that are happening, we want to make sure we're protecting Floridians."
Phil Sears / AP
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AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he's sending law enforcement officers and Guard troops because "given the situation that's happening in Haiti, some brutal reports that are happening, we want to make sure we're protecting Floridians."

Other Republican officials are also raising alarms about the threat they believe the Haitian crisis poses for Floridians. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and three other Republican members of Congress from Florida want President Biden to declare an "anticipated mass migration of aliens." Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio sent President Biden a letter stating, "Floridians and the rest of the American public will not tolerate your administration again opening the floodgates for countless, unvetted foreign nationals."

State Rep. Dotie Joseph was born in Haiti and represents a district in North Miami that's home to many from the island. She calls DeSantis' talk about "being prepared" for a wave of migrants "political grandstanding." She's one of a number of Haitian-American leaders calling on the governor to help close the pipeline of guns from Florida that's helping arm gangs on the island. A U.N. report last year found the primary source of firearms and ammunition in Haiti is the U.S., particularly Florida.

"If [DeSantis] wanted to send law enforcement to do something productive as opposed to for show," Joseph says, "then he would work with our federal partners to make sure that they're helping screen not just at our ports, but at a lot of the private places along the Miami River, where we know these things are coming from."

And if there is a surge in migration, Joseph says, the U.S. must treat Haitians humanely. She's concerned about plans outlined by a U.S. military official last week to possibly house Haitian migrants intercepted at sea at the naval station in Guantanamo, Cuba. "Seeking asylum or refugee status is not something that is criminal," Joseph says. "It's legal. And treating people like criminals with these kind of detention policies, be they at Guantanamo or elsewhere is quite frankly, unacceptable."

Even DeSantis acknowledges that a wave of migrants in boats might not materialize. In recent years, vastly more Haitians have come to the U.S. over the Southern border than by making the hazardous boat crossing to Florida.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.