Is Florida GOP’s tough talk on immigration a winning ticket in November?

By: - July 6, 2018 7:00 am

Then-Congressman Al Lawson addresses a crowd who gathered to protest Trump administration immigration policies in front of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee in 2019. Photo by Mitch Perry

Last Saturday in cities throughout Florida, thousands of people gathered to denounce the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration which has resulted in more than 2,000 migrant children being separated from their families when attempting to cross the Mexican border into the U.S.

But with the controversy exploding all over the nation, the two Republicans running for governor – Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam – spent little time speaking about Trump’s policy during their debate last week and instead bashed each other for being insufficiently tough on immigration.

Polls taken earlier this year (such as a Florida Atlantic University Business and Economics Polling Initiative) showed that immigration was the number one issue among Republicans in Florida, and more recent surveys taken nationally indicate that Republicans overall support separating migrant children from their parents when caught illegally crossing the Mexico-U.S. border.

A Quinnipiac survey released on June 18 showed that while American voters oppose the policy of separating children and parents when caught crossing the border illegally by a 66-27 percent margin, Republicans supported the policy by a 55-35 percent margin.

“Republicans are one of the few groups that support the policy overall,” Sarasota House Republican Joe Gruters told Ledyard King of USA Today. “The base itself supports it.  It’s not a negative.”

So how will this play out in November? At their June 28 debate, Republican gubernatorial hopeful DeSantis blasted Putnam for failing push for an E-Verify system to help check whether workers have proper documentation. Putnam countered by touting President Donald Trump’s “Four pillars plan” that includes border security, reforming family-based migration, ending the visa lottery program and coming up with a solution to the impasse over how to deal with  young immigrants covered under the 2014 DACA policy. Under DACA, some people brought illegally to America as children are deferred from immediate deporation.

Putnam then went further, pledging that he would end the “$100 million a year” that he claims Floridians currently spend to “feed, clothe and house criminal illegal aliens in our prison system.” (The fact-checking operation PolitiFact ruled Putnam’s claim  “mostly false.”)

Both candidates seized on an issue that doesn’t seem to be a real problem in Florida – so-called “sanctuary cities” – governments with laws, policies or regulations in place that refuse to comply with officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who detain illegal immigrants. Both DeSantis and Putnam vowed to ban sanctuary cities.

There is little evidence that any such sanctuary cities actually exist in Florida, inspiring some critics to say it’s a cynical political ploy candidates use to move votes rather than actually accomplish anything on what has historically been a federal issue.

“At the state level Republicans (including many Florida Republicans) use the illegal immigration issue to motivate their base and to garner votes in the primary,” says University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. “Most talk of taking a hardline (build a wall, no citizenship, more aggressive action to deport), but have done very little. And as a practical matter, states are limited in what they can do on the issue of immigration (legal or illegal) as this is predominantly a national government responsibility. But many Republican candidates view illegal immigration as a good political issue.”

Proposals in the Republican-led Florida Legislature to ban sanctuary cities have failed over the past three sessions.

The concerns about sanctuary communities come at a time when ICE and the Dept. of Homeland Security have been conducting high profile raids on undocumented immigrants throughout the state.  Data from the agency shows that such raids were up 76 percent in Florida in 2017.

“There’s always ICE around our community. We’re constantly getting calls from our members that in a certain area or certain cross there are checkpoints,” says Guadalupe De La Cruz, an organizer with WeCount! based in Homestead, outside Miami.

In January, the federal Justice Department called out West Palm Beach for being one of 23 jurisdictions in the country that could be subjected to a subpoena if the municipality failed to provide documents showing that it cooperates  with federal immigration enforcement officers.

The federal interest came after the West Palm Beach City Commission  declared the town a “Welcoming City” to immigrants in March 2017. The policy prohibited city employees from asking anyone for information about, or otherwise helping, to investigate  citizenship or immigration status.

West Palm fired back to the Justice Department  with a lawsuit in February, and ultimately a settlement was reached between  the two parties in March. The city subsequently issued a memo to its employees saying that they are authorized to share information about people’s immigration status.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank favoring low levels of immigration, continues to list both Clay and Alachua counties as sanctuary communities on their website. But officials in both counties strongly dispute that they adhere to such policies.

It’s not surprising that the Republican candidates for governor would challenge each other regarding immigration. Whether either candidate will do anything about it if they make it to the Governor’s Mansion next January remains extremely uncertain, if the past is prologue.

Take Governor Rick Scott during his first campaign for governor in 2010.

The former health care executive gained immediate traction against former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum when he embraced Arizona’s extremely controversial law that would have required police to ask for identification from anyone they suspect of being undocumented.

While several other states immediately enacted copycat legislation, the Florida Legislature failed to approve such a proposal in the spring of 2011.

Scott showed little interest in pursuing the bill after that, but he did keep the faith with the Republican base in 2013 by vetoing a bill that would have given driver’s licenses to young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers.” He also said that year that he would not support in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Flash forward a year later and the governor sang a different tune when facing Charlie Crist in a bid for reelection. Scott ended up signing legislation pushed by House Speaker Will Weatherford and state Senator Jack Latvala that delivered in-state tuition to dreamers. The governor also signed an amendment to a bill that was designed to help an undocumented immigrant named Jose Godinez-Samperio to be accepted to the Florida Bar.

Palm Beach County tea party activist Everett Wilkinson was an initial supporter of McCollum, and he says remembers those actions vividly.

“I think that Rick Scott at the time used that issue to gain a lot of votes,” he says. “Unfortunately, he failed to follow through on some of those promises.”

Pinellas County GOP State Committeeman Dan Tucker also says he was disappointed in the legislation that included “subsidizing illegal aliens in any form.”

On the campaign trail this year in his run for U.S. Senate, Gov. Scott has spoken in support of efforts to secure the U.S. border, and also supported Congress passing legislation to protect young immigrants from deportation. In January, the governor issued a rare rebuke to Trump after it was reported that the president called certain African nations “sh*thole countries.”

“I represent Florida, and we are an amazing melting pot where over 250 languages are spoken,” Scott responded when asked about Trump’s alleged vulgarity.

“Repeated, coarse vocal attacks by many Republicans (starting at the top with President Trump) on illegal immigration from Latin America are sometimes seen by Hispanic citizens and legal residents as attacks on all Hispanics,” UCF professor Jewett in an email. “This is certainly something that Democrats play up and that smart Republican candidates in Florida try to mitigate.”

Scott isn’t the only Florida Republican to push a tough line on immigration in a contested primary and relent when they move on to a general election.

When Tampa Republican Jackie Toledo was battling for the GOP nomination for a Florida House seat in Hillsborough County in 2016, she said she would work on repealing the two bills that Scott signed into law that supported undocumented immigrants.

“Politicians have passed some BAD laws. Jackie Toledo will REPEAL them,” one campaign mailer said, referring to legislation that provided in-state tuition and law licenses for “illegal aliens.”

Yet when a bill was introduced to repeal the in-state tuition offered to undocumented immigrants, Toledo never publicly commented on it (the bill ended up dying.)

In a contested Pinellas County Republican race for the state Legislature, both Nick DiCeglie and Berny Jacques came out early in opposition to sanctuary cities.

“When it comes to immigration, illegal means illegal,” DiCeglie wrote in a February fundraising email. “I’m running for the Florida House to make sure harmful and thoughtless policies like ‘sanctuary cities’ never see the light of day, and our communities remain safe for our children and families.”

“I know first-hand the dangers that threaten a country when the rule of law is not followed,” responded Jacques, a Haitian native. “And I know this: we must fight to defend the rule of law for our state and for our country and end sanctuary cities now.”

After the proposal in the state Legislature to restrict sanctuary cities passed in the House but stalled in the Senate this past winter, House Speaker Richard Corcoran denounced his Senate colleagues as being “not real Republicans.”

But while the issue can work in contested GOP primaries, it’s value in contested elections in more moderate districts is more ambiguous.

Take for instance, the special election for a Florida House seat in Sarasota County earlier this year between Republican James Buchanan and Democrat Margaret Good.  Buchanan ran an ad that said Good “sides with liberals” in making Sarasota a “sanctuary city for illegal aliens.” Sarasota is not a sanctuary city.

While that district included more than 12,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats and went for Trump by 4 percent in 2016, that line of attack appeared to get little traction in a race where Good ultimately defeated Buchanan by seven points.

“It was a misstep,” says New College political science professor and former Democratic state legislator Keith Fitzgerald. “It lost votes among Republicans who want to remain with the party but are increasingly alienated by these kinds of issues. They know the state legislature doesn’t do anything on this issue.”

Some Republicans are endorsing the pact signed in January between sheriffs in 17 counties (now it’s up to 19) that allow the sheriff’s departments to hold undocumented immigrants who are arrested on unrelated charges up to 48 hours to give ICE a chance to pick them up and potentially deport them. The change now permits sheriffs to hold the undocumented with a civil warrant instead of a judicial one.

Meanwhile, some Democrats, most notably those running in the Miami-Dade Congressional race to succeed a retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are calling for ICE to be abolished in the wake of the uproar about ICE separating children from their parents when crossing the border illegally.

That sentiment is hardly universal among Democrats, however, with some fearing it could backfire against them in November.

Eduardo Gamarra, political science professor at Florida International University, doesn’t think the issue will resonate in Florida despite the strong makeup of Latino voters. He notes that most of those being swept up by ICE are from Central America, a bloc of voters who don’t traditionally vote in strong numbers in Florida.

A recent CBS-YouGov poll showed that that 40 percent of Floridians think recent immigrants from Mexico and other Latin Americans countries have made life in the Sunshine State worse, a statistic that alarms Gamarra, a resident of Miami-Dade County which is 68 percent Hispanic (according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

“I think the trend is moving probably in Trump’s direction because that was a very surprising result,” he says.

“Immigration is the number one issue that drives our base,” adds Florida  House Republican Joe Gruters of Sarasota. And in a state which Donald Trump won by a little over a percentage point in 2016 in Florida by ramping up the issue, its significance in the fall could be crucial, where most high-profile statewide elections come down to a point or two.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.