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Greg Sargent: DeSantis’s latest appeal to MAGA tops Trump in performative cruelty

By Greg Sargent Washington Post Writers Group

As president, Donald Trump separated migrant families, forced asylum seekers back into Mexico and built hundreds of miles of border barriers. The border remained chaotic and the migrants kept coming, yet MAGA ideology continues to hold that the “crisis” can be solved with just the right mix of cruel deterrence, tough enforcement and — of course — more walls.

That disconnect helps explain Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s radical new plan to secure the border, which he rolled out Monday. The plan is meant to propel him to Trump’s right on a leading MAGA issue. But DeSantis’s blueprint contains a bunch of warmed-over ideas — mass deportations, draconian efforts to limit asylum-seeking and legal immigration, even an end to birthright citizenship — that Trump already tried to execute, yet could not.

The fundamental promise of DeSantis’s GOP presidential primary campaign is that he’d execute the MAGA agenda far more competently than Trump. But there’s a reason Trump largely failed in controlling the border, and it has little do with competence or “toughness.”

Rather, it’s that presidents lack the authority to close down legal immigration in any substantial way, and however harsh their enforcement gets, it simply doesn’t dissuade migrants from coming, including illegally, and settling here successfully.

“No excuses: Stop the invasion,” blares DeSantis’s immigration blueprint. Unveiling his plan in Texas, DeSantis accused Trump of failing to deliver, saying the unthinkable: “Obama’s first four years had more deportations than Trump’s term, which is incredible.”

It’s true that President Barack Obama, to his discredit, deported more migrants in his first term than Trump did. But that’s because of many underlying factors: Under Obama, arrests at the border had begun to plummet, leaving more resources for deportations from the interior. There were also far fewer sanctuary localities denying cooperation with federal law enforcement then than now.

Putting aside how wretched it is to cast mass deportations as a positive — we should legalize undocumented people, not deport them — DeSantis probably wouldn’t be able to do much better than Trump. What’s at issue is how much Congress is willing to spend on removals.

“It would require an immense escalation of resources, which the Congress has to date shown little interest in providing,” Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told me. Deportation levels have nothing to do with some mystical quality of presidential toughness.

But DeSantis’s move does constitute a genuine statement of priorities. Whereas President Biden deprioritizes the removal of undocumented immigrants who don’t pose a serious threat — which the Supreme Court upheld last week — DeSantis would deport them en masse, no matter how deeply connected they are to communities here.

DeSantis’s plan also vows to force untold numbers of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings, just as Trump did. But Mexico flatly stated this year that it opposes restarting this policy. Would DeSantis follow Trump in threatening enormous tariffs against Mexico to force it to comply?

DeSantis also promises to disregard legal limits on how long child migrants can be held in detention to facilitate detaining migrant families longer. Guess what? Trump tried that, too, but it was struck down in court as outside presidential authority. DeSantis would apparently mandate extended detention of all migrant families awaiting legal proceedings, but this would likely require Congress to fund a large expansion of our detention machinery. Good luck with that.

The DeSantis plan would also end guaranteed citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil. Trump proposed that as well, but it’s enshrined by the 14th Amendment. DeSantis insists this reading of the Constitution is wrong; the vast consensus among legal experts says otherwise.

DeSantis also promises to end all of Biden’s parole programs, which admit at least 30,000 migrants per month who apply from abroad. That’s something DeSantis might be able to do as president, but no one should call it “securing the border.”

In fact, widening legal channels for such migration arguably disincentivizes people from trying to enter via the border and straining infrastructure there. That helps process overall migration in a more orderly way. The rub is that DeSantis doesn’t want well-managed migration. He wants far less of it.

Running the immigration system is profoundly challenging for any president regardless of his priorities. Biden has certainly struggled, and keeping arrivals at the border manageable has led to limitations on asylum-seeking that renege on our international commitments.

But Biden understands that many complex factors throughout the Americas drive migration to the United States, and he sees letting more applicants in from abroad, while making border processing more humane wherever possible, as the way to manage it as a positive good for the country.

By contrast, DeSantis would cut off those applicants entirely while rendering our immigration system more cruel, more inhumane and more destructive to our overall national interests. Even if DeSantis would struggle to implement his plan’s specifics, what’s appalling is the deliberate message it sends: He would seek to one-up Trump’s hyper-restrictionist agenda, despite all its abominations and the searing social conflict it unleashed.

In short, DeSantis views Trump’s inability to implement his horrors at full scale as lamentable — as something that should be rectified, and even outdone.

Greg Sargent is a columnist. He joined the Washington Post in 2010, after stints at Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine and the New York Observer.