Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the University of Miami Health System Don Soffer Clinical Research Center on May 17, 2022 in Miami, Florida.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the University of Miami Health System Don Soffer Clinical Research Center on May 17, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

MIAMI — By flying dozens of Venezuelans to Martha’s Vineyard last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis inflamed a national debate over U.S. immigration policy and put himself in a position to dictate the terms of the discussion.

But he also granted Democrats an opening just weeks before the midterm elections to attack their Republican opponents over the treatment of families fleeing communist countries — a demographic that is among the GOP’s base in South Florida.

In the days since 48 migrants landed unannounced on the Massachusetts island, courtesy of a one-way ticket from the state of Florida, Hispanic Democrats have persistently slammed DeSantis and Republicans over what they say was a heartless stunt at the expense of people fleeing far-left regimes.

Meanwhile, some of the migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard have sued the governor, claiming in a federal lawsuit that they faced “a cruelty akin to what they fled” in Venezuela.

“They can’t accuse dictators of being socialists and communists in Venezuela, in Nicaragua and in Cuba and punish the very people who are leaving those countries trying to have a legal process, seeking asylum,” former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said during a press conference Thursday in El Arepazo in Doral, the heart of Miami-Dade’s Venezuelan community.

With their opponents seeking to put them on the defensive, South Florida Republicans representing large communities that have fled authoritarian regimes have defended DeSantis and redirected attention to what they say are immigration policy failures under the Biden administration.

U.S. Reps. Carlos Gimenez and Mario Diaz-Balart suggested in separate statements that the flights wouldn’t have happened had the Biden administration done more to address an unprecedented influx of migrants at the U.S. Mexico border.

“If the White House cared about these migrants, they’d secure the border and stop incentivizing them to risk their lives on this treacherous journey,” said Gimenez, who faces a challenge from former state Rep. Robert Asencio.

Diaz-Balart, running for reelection against Christine Olivo, said Martha’s Vineyard as a destination made more sense than sending migrants to cities with fewer resources. He added that he believes migrants fleeing regimes in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua have potentially some of the “most legitimate asylum claims.”

“Yet, due to the uncontrollable chaos caused by the Biden Administration at our southern border, these legitimate claims are not being reviewed in a reasonable manner,” he said, referring to a federal backlog.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, facing a challenge from U.S. Rep. Val Demings, released a video Wednesday in which he was incredulous at the lawsuit filed by the Venezuelan migrants.

“In what country in the world are you allowed to enter illegally into a country violating its laws, and within a week be in court suing the very government whose laws you just violated?” he asked.

But perhaps no race will be as affected as the closely watched election for Florida’s 27th Congressional District, where one analysis of voter demographics shows it is about 74% Hispanic and the incumbent has called for the GOP to take a more compassionate stance on immigration.

U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar did not return a request for an interview or comment for this story. On Monday, she sent a letter to Biden on immigration, demanding he “stop pointing fingers and get serious about solving this issue.”

Last February, Salazar filed the Dignity Act, a bill that aims to overhaul the immigration system and promises a path to legal residency in the U.S. for millions of undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers. The legislation also proposes measures to increase border security.

When asked by the Miami Herald during an event in April if she believed her party would be sympathetic to her message on immigration, Salazar, who is from Cuba, said she believed Republicans were “understanding more and more and more that what I’m saying is the right way to do it.”

“We’re putting together a very big coalition, but not only people on the floor, people in the Senate. And I will have very good news for you before the year’s out,” she said before hosting an event with the LIBRE Initiative in West Miami-Dade. “Dignity will be law.”

On Thursday, as DeSantis criticized President Joe Biden’s border policies during an appearance at Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, Salazar’s opponent, Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo, said migrant flights were part of Republicans’ hypocrisy with victims of communist countries.

“What happened to dignity?” Taddeo, who is Colombian-American, told the Herald. “Where is the dignity in tricking people into getting on a plane with a promise of housing and jobs when all they were doing is using them for a political trick, political pawns? It’s outrageous and there’s no dignity in that. And what’s worse is that these are people fleeing communism.”

The Salazar-Taddeo race is being watched nationally, as Democrats try to fend off the narrative that Hispanics are fleeing their party in South Florida. Taddeo, whose father was kidnapped in the 1980s by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist guerrilla army, has sought to paint Salazar as a hypocrite when it comes to her advocacy against communist regimes.

“We’re in essence less than 50 days from an election,” Taddeo said. “This is my point about the hypocrisy of these people including my opponent... Republicans are the ones that don’t want anything on immigration.”

It’s still unclear how most Hispanic voters feel about the recent immigration move in South Florida, where majority-Latino communities like Doral and Hialeah saw a dramatic shift to the right during the 2020 election.

Recent polls show that DeSantis is leading his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist. A new poll by research firm Civiqs found that about 46% of a subset of Hispanic voters polled said they had a favorable view of the governor, higher than U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s 39%.

“This is trying to make the government or the administration of Joe Biden stop the illegal immigration and the open borders,” Ernesto Ackerman, president of Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, said following an appearance in Washington the morning after DeSantis’ Martha’s Vineyard flights. “That’s all that’s going on here.”

The migrant flights were announced just weeks after a recent uproar against Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez over comments she made on a conservative Spanish-language radio show, where she suggested Cuban migrants should be bused to Delaware.

The comment — which initially seemed to be a rare faux pas by a Cuban-American Republican that would offend a powerful and conservative voting bloc — was broadly condemned in pockets of Miami-Dade. But others defended Nuñez, arguing she actually meant to draw a distinction between asylum-seekers and immigrants who were in the country illegally and were not fleeing political persecution.

DeSantis defended Nuñez a few days later, echoing a similar argument.

“I think Jeanette was talking about refugees,” he said during a press conference on Sept. 7. “It applies to people illegally crossing the southern border, who want to come to Florida or come to Florida, because a lot of them say they want to. If they’re here illegally, that’s a much different thing than being a refugee. So it does not apply to refugees.”

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Miami Herald staff writer Alex Roarty contributed to this report.

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