When Adelys Ferro first planned an event commemorating “World Arepa Day,” the holiday in honor of the doughy corn cakes beloved by Venezuelans since precolonial times, the director of the Venezuelan-American Caucus and her fellow Miami immigrant organizers envisioned an apolitical gathering: set up a couple of tables in a parking lot, hand out a few hundred arepas, play some Latin music and connect with the community. But then the news broke that operatives working for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used $10 McDonald’s gift certificates to help lure dozens of hungry Venezuelan asylum seekers into boarding flights to Martha’s Vineyard.
What began as a neighborhood celebration turned into a pro-immigrant, anti-DeSantis rally. The organizers rented an open-top bus and drove around Miami with flags flying and a huge banner proclaiming, “Pa’fuera Ron DeSantis”—“Out with Ron DeSantis.” They stopped in bustling areas like Wynwood Marketplace and Bayfront Park to hand out arepas and urge residents to vote.
Ferro had harsh words for the DeSantis stunt. “It’s disgraceful. It’s inhumane. It’s disgusting—no, there should be a stronger word for this than disgusting,” says Ferro. “Venezuelans have been used as political props for years now, but never anything like this.”
The Martha’s Vineyard episode is the latest escalation in a contest between ambitious Republican politicians like DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott—both of whom carry presidential aspirations and face re-election contests this year—to highlight their extreme nativist credentials. And while apathy and aggression toward low-income migrants has long been a hallmark of the GOP platform, it’s only recently that Republicans have turned their wrath on people fleeing autocratic regimes in Venezuela and Cuba.
The recent change in Republican attitudes toward these migrants coincided with a spike in their numbers at the southern border. Historically, Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have regularly accounted for as much as 90 percent of people apprehended by U.S. border agents. But in August, thanks in large part to a continued surge in migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, the numbers of migrants fleeing all other countries represented a majority of arrivals for the first time in many years.
There were more than 150,000 Venezuelan, 145,000 Nicaraguan, and nearly 200,000 Cuban border crossings in this fiscal year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data (the figures denote apprehensions at the border, including those of repeat crossings by the same individuals).
Today, Cuba’s communist leaders struggle to confront the country’s worst economic crisis in three decades. In Venezuela, the authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro has overseen drastic political upheavals and total economic meltdown, causing rampant food and electricity shortages and the collapse of the country’s health care system. Spikes in violent crime under Maduro have produced one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Earlier this year, DeSantis signed two bills, one establishing November 7 as “Victims of Communism Day” in Florida—which this year falls on the day before Election Day—and another requiring teachers to provide at least 45 minutes of instruction on communist regimes’ abuses in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua—a remarkable display of hypocrisy given his recent actions.
For the nearly five-decade-long Cold War and several years afterward, Congress made special allowances with bipartisan support for people escaping or displaced by communist regimes. Upward of 1.2 million Cubans resettled in the U.S. following the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966; more than 500,000 Soviets, most of them Jews, emigrated thanks to the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment; and hundreds of thousands of people who fled bloody civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala gained legal status in 1997 under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. The second Bush and Obama administrations also extended deportation protections for migrants from countries battered by civil strife and natural disasters.
“Who can recognize the Republican Party at this point?” says Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a New York–based think tank. In his three decades working on immigration policy, Kerwin says he has seen the GOP undergo a radical transformation.
Former President Donald Trump forced this startling about-face. His tireless assault on existing immigration protections and the asylum system that protects future migrants appeared to extinguish what little sympathy the Republican Party had for migrants in peril. “In the past, there was concern [from many Republicans] for people fleeing communist regimes. That was real, it wasn’t a ruse,” says Kerwin. “But that’s all gone. It’s just politics now, totally unmoored from the well-being of asylum seekers and refugees.”
In Wilmington, North Carolina, last month, Trump warned of an “invasion” of Venezuelans at the border, describing migrants as “vicious convicts” charged with “murder, rape, and other heinous crimes”—the same kind of xenophobic rhetoric he used to describe Mexican migrants on the campaign trail in 2015.
More than a dozen Republican members of Congress, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart and Carlos Gimenez, have echoed those claims, citing an unconfirmed report that the Department of Homeland Security had discovered that the Venezuelan government was actively opening its jails and releasing prisoners to the U.S. border.
A DHS spokesperson told the Prospect that those claims were unverified; a PolitiFact investigation also failed to turn up any evidence to support these claims.
A few weeks before the Trump rally, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez admitted during a radio interview that DeSantis would not sit idly by as large numbers of undocumented Cubans arrived in the Sunshine State. Instead, the governor would send them packing to President Biden’s home in Delaware. Unsurprisingly, the backlash to the interview was swift. The Cuban electorate holds serious power in Florida, and state and national Republicans cannot afford to lose their votes. The pressure forced Nuñez, who is the daughter of Cuban exiles, to walk back her comments.
For Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political scientist, the recent aggression toward Venezuelans by politicians like DeSantis is a case of Republicans testing how much they can get away with without completely putting off Latino voters. Venezuelan voters only amount to a little more than 2 percent of all eligible Latino voters in Florida, so they may seem to be expendable.
“It’s an electoral calculation,” says Gamarra. “Republicans believe the immigration message is so powerful with their base that they’re willing to risk losing voters elsewhere.”
If Republicans in Florida and beyond want to gamble on immigration, they have certainly bet big. Since April, Gov. Abbott has spent more than $12 million in taxpayer funds to round up nearly 10,000 migrants in Texas and send them on hundreds of buses to cities led by Democratic mayors like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York. Abbott’s scheme also caught on with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), whose office claims to have transported more than 1,600 migrants to the nation’s capital this year. A recent email from the National Republican Senatorial Committee even went as far as to try to rile up supporters by asking them where they wanted GOP governors to “ship the illegal immigrants next.”
For a politician with his eyes on 2024 like DeSantis, the border crisis is a base-rousing tool that he cannot afford to ignore. The GOP’s laser-like focus on immigration, along with DeSantis’s admission that relatively few border arrivals were making their way to Florida, explains his decision to spend $615,000 in taxpayer funds to charter a plane to fly Venezuelans from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard (it also adds a disturbing dimension to reports of DeSantis joking with donors last year about Abbott’s political luck in sharing such a large border with Mexico). A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only a third of respondents found it acceptable for state officials to fly or bus migrants to other states, suggesting that this tactic is not without political drawbacks.
Trump won the Cuban American vote in Florida in 2020. He also overperformed among Venezuelans, nearly beating out Biden in cities like Doral, home to the largest Venezuelan-born population in the country, after losing there by 40 percent in 2016. A similar rightward shift was seen in down-ballot races in the state, catching many Democrats by surprise. The Biden administration offered temporary immigration protections to more than 340,000 Venezuelans living in the U.S., which has helped the president’s standing in the community. But that decision has been somewhat overshadowed by moves earlier this year to reach a rapprochement with the Maduro regime amid surging U.S. energy prices.
But not every Venezuelan voter will be outraged by the new attacks on migrants. Gamarra remembers how in 1980 many residents of Miami’s Cuban community who escaped Fidel Castro’s regime during the 1960s fought against allowing entry to the people who fled the regime during the Mariel boatlift. Those attitudes surfaced again during the Balsero Crisis in 1994, when tens of thousands of Cubans arrived on rafts off the coast of Florida. Gamarra has started to see the same trends play out in the region’s Venezuelan communities. “You’ll hear immigrants say things like ‘they’re not like us,’” he says. “What they mean by that is that [new migrants] are not of the same social class or color so they shouldn’t receive the same kind of help.”
Still, it is not yet clear whether the Republicans’ hard-line anti-immigration stance will actually cost them a significant number of voters in South Florida’s Venezuelan and Cuban communities or with the wider electorate. Gamarra believes DeSantis’s stunt could cost him at the polls, so long as progressive groups can capitalize on it with sustained outreach.
Ferro, of the Venezuelan-American Caucus, remains undaunted. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to keep being used as political props,” she says. “We’re going to fight.”