How do U.S. Senate candidates Rick Scott & Bill Nelson stand on immigration and foreign policy?

By: - November 1, 2018 7:00 am

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President Trump’s announcement this week that he may issue an executive order to end America’s guarantee of birthright citizenship prompted members of the Florida press corps to ask Republican Gov. Rick Scott his reaction. The U.S. Constitution now allows the children of undocumented immigrants to become citizens if they are born in the U.S., but Trump wants to change that.

What does Scott think about it? Scott – now running for U.S. Senate – showed little interest in wading into the contentious issue.

“I have not seen the details of what the president is suggesting and would need to fully review the proposal,” Scott said in a statement on Tuesday. “While I’ve been clear that Florida is a great melting pot, America’s immigration system is broken, and Congress – including Senator Nelson – has done nothing to fix the problem.”

Scott’s statement illustrates the tightrope he’s had to walk this year; he’s a Trump ally, but he’s vying for votes in multicultural Florida against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.


Concern about immigration is an issue that Trump and other Republicans believe can drive their base voters to the polls next week, but it’s a topic Scott has tried to finesse by having it both ways with the state’s diverse population.


As Jim DeFede from CBS Miami recently noted, Scott has been airing an ominous ad on immigration in conservative North Florida where he blasts the “immigration mess” caused by Washington politicians like his opponent Nelson. It criticizes Nelson’s support for a policy “that’s allowed 900,000 illegal immigrants caught here to stay here just by not showing up in court.” (The bill in question, the Keep Families Together Act, would prohibit the federal government from removing undocumented minor children from their parents or legal guardians).

“Bill Nelson: Dangerous on immigration,” the narrator in Scott’s North Florida TV ad intones.

Meanwhile, in Hispanic-friendly South Florida, Scott has been airing a different ad in Spanish where he says, “When I don’t agree with what President Trump does or says, I’ve said it. My only commitment is with you. For me, what’s important is that your families have the best opportunities.”

It makes it hard for voters to tell just where Scott stands on immigration issues. Nelson’s record is also somewhat confusing.

Nelson supports comprehensive immigration reform while making sure to say that he’s also for border security. Like the Democratic Party overall, he’s more liberal on the issue these days than he once was.

In 2006, Nelson voted to support legislation that would have allowed  370 miles of fencing through major urban areas and another 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the Mexican border. And when it came time for the federal government to pay for the fence two months later, Nelson was one of only two Democrats (Thomas Carper of Delaware was the other) to vote in support of funding the fence. The proposal ultimately failed.

Venezuela and Cuba

It’s been well reported that both candidates are campaigning for the Hispanic vote extensively in Florida’s burgeoning Puerto Rican community; they have also reached out to South Florida’s Venezuelan and Cuban voters.

Both candidates have condemned the Nicolas Maduro-led government in Venezuela. The Venezuelan economy has collapsed so significantly that the International Monetary Fund wrote in July that its inflation rate will likely top 1,000,000 percent by the end of the year. Scott, Rubio, and Nelson all support the U.S. imposing sanctions on Venezuela to punish the government. In one instance, Nelson’s stance has been more hardline than either of the Republicans – he has advocated banning Venezuelan oil imports.

As governor, Scott pushed for the Florida Legislature to block state investment in Venezuela earlier this year. On his website, he says he is committed to supporting the people of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and “all those across Latin America who are fighting for their freedom.”

“Governor Scott is just taking his cues from the Miami community on foreign policy, and this is very much in line with what the Republican Party has done since the 1980’s,” says Florida International University political science professor Eduardo Gamarra. “They look at Cuban-American leadership in Miami, and they make up their mind that way.”

Gamarra says that Sen. Rubio has been the main source of influence for the GOP in Florida, as well as in Washington, when it comes to  Trump administration policy positions on Cuba and Venezuela.


One place where Scott and Nelson are on the same page is American relations with Russia.

“I completely disagree with the president with regard to trusting Putin, trusting Russia,” Scott said at a campaign appearance in Boca Raton in July (as reported by the Palm Beach Post). “Putin is not our friend. Putin is not our ally. I don’t trust Putin. It clearly appears that Russia tried to meddle in our election….as a Senator, I’m not going to trust Putin.”

Scott made those comments after Trump joined Putin at a news conference in Helsinki, where the president refused to accept the news that Putin’s Russia interfered with America’s election system in 2016.

“He has walked that line of separating himself a little bit from the Trump hardline stance,” says Dennis Jett, a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and a professor of international relations at Penn State University.

Nelson called Trump’s comments about Putin “alarming,” “embarrassing” and “unacceptable.”

The Middle East

One major disagreement between the candidates has been on Trump’s decision in May to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by Barack Obama in 2015.

Scott applauded Trump’s move, calling the original plan a “reckless deal” that threatened the state of Israel.

Nelson labeled the decision a “tragic mistake” which would only speed up Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Scott joined other Florida Republicans in Jerusalem for a public celebration about relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Moving the embassy delighted supporters of Israel while angering some parts of the Arab world. Nelson did not attend the celebration, but he supported the embassy move.

In perhaps his most significant foreign policy vote during his time in the Senate, Nelson voted to support giving President George W. Bush authorization to invade Iraq in the fall of 2002. While the majority of Democrats also joined the Republicans in giving Bush the go-ahead for what has been termed the biggest foreign policy mistake by the U.S. in decades, there were 23 Senators who opposed the measure, including Florida’s other Democratic U.S. Senator at the time, Bob Graham.

Will foreign policy matter?

The big political question, of course, is whether any of these policy differences will move voters at all in the Nelson-Scott race.

“As for the Senate race, seldom has foreign policy played a major role in most political campaigns,” admits Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government from the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. “Even in presidential races, foreign policy takes a backseat to other issues.”

The Florida Phoenix reached out to both candidates last week to get their perspectives on two current foreign policy issues – what, if anything, the U.S. should do about the government of Saudi Arabia in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi”s murder, and their thoughts about the migrant caravan in Central America that has led President Trump to call for military troops to assemble at the Mexican border. Neither responded to our inquiries.

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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.