Immigration listening tour ignites concerns, and has now been postponed

By: - August 9, 2019 7:00 am

Republican state Sen. Joe Gruters, from his video touring the Southern U.S. border

UPDATE: Florida Politics reported on Saturday that state Senator Joe Gruters has decided to postpone the tour. See more below.

A GOP statewide “immigration listening tour” scheduled for later this month has sparked everything from denouncements to talk of potential protests in to outright curiosity about what’s going on.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman didn’t even know about the stop on the tour.

In the Orlando area, Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani said flatly, “I have no intention to consent to this politically motivated agenda by gracing it with my attendance.”

And a Miami lawmaker essentially said: Not in my town.

The intensity across the state comes from the announcement last week that Joe Gruters, a Sarasota state senator and chair of the Republican Party of Florida, will be hosting an immigration listening tour in what will now be seven cities across the state.

Presumably the tour is about hearing from Floridians about the volatile issue of immigration.

But the issue has become even more divisive following the GOP-controlled passage of Gruters’ bill in the spring, which would require local law enforcement to work with federal immigration authorities and punish public officials who fail to so (Neptune Beach Republican Cord Byrd sponsored it in the House).

And added to the mix is the fact that Latinos in Florida and America are on edge following the mass shooting in El Paso last weekend. The alleged killer wrote in a screed that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

The tour is scheduled to take place between August 19-21, kicking off in Venice before moving to St. Petersburg and then to Altamonte Springs just outside of Orlando. It then moves on to Melbourne, Jacksonville, Fort Myers and, now Miami, a recent addition after the Florida Democratic Party cried foul, noting that the original six cites listed were “majority white and Republican – ignoring immigrant communities in Florida.”

But now, a Democratic lawmaker from that area says he doesn’t want the tour anywhere near his district.

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez notes in a letter to the editor published in Thursday’s Miami Herald that Gruters is the lead sponsor of the controversial “anti-sanctuary cities” bill known as SB 168. The bill was fiercely opposed by Rodriguez and every other Democrat in the Legislature earlier this year, but is now state law.

“Many in my district felt their voices were not heard when they opposed the bill, so why would they be heard now?” Rodriguez asks in the letter.

Noting that Gruters chairs the Republican Party of Florida and is an ally of President Donald Trump, Rodriguez writes that the event has the potential to “stoke the charged rhetoric directed at immigration and immigrants that is already at fever pitch nationally. We do not need more of that.”

“Many families in my community are tearful, angry and afraid by the deaths in Dayton and El Paso,” Rodriguez added. “Guns are lethal and so is the rhetoric of racial resentment. Fears are real among my constituents in a majority Latino district and a county with a high percentage of residents not born here. The El Paso murdered did not check immigration status.”

The debate over SB 168 was one of the most visceral of any issue in the 2019 legislative session, and its opponents are in no mood to hear what its sponsors have to say about it now.

“Sen. Gruters and Rep. (Cord) Byrd already had a chance to listen,” says Ida Eskamani, a lobbyist with the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

“Over 1,000 immigrants and advocates came to the Capitol begging these lawmakers to reject President Trump’s & Governor DeSantis’ xenophobic and anti-Latino agenda; or at the very least, allow immigrant advocates a seat at the decision-making table. Instead, these lawmakers championed SB 168, a law written with the advisement of a hate group, that preempts local government, enforces our broken immigration system beyond what federal law requires, and terrorizes hardworking immigrant families.”

A spokesman for St. Peterburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he wasn’t aware of the event taking place in his city — scheduled to occur at the St. Petersburg Main Library — and won’t be attending.

“We’re confident that Senator Gruters will find St. Pete to be a welcoming, inclusive city where the sun shines on us all, no matter who we are or where we come from,” said spokesman Ben Kirby.

Pastor Andy Oliver from the Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg says he plans to attend, and will bring a group of activists with him.

The Miami Herald has reported that Altamonte Springs Republican state Senator Dave Simmons will join Gruters and Byrd when the tour hits his hometown. Simmons has announced that he intends to soon file legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants the opportunity to get driver’s licenses, an idea that some of his fellow Republicans recently told the Florida Phoenix they’re not that enthusiastic about.

Expenses for the tour are being footed by Gruters’ political committee, reinforcing the sentiment by some Democrats that its ambitions are more political than informational (Gruters has said it’s better than using public funds).

“Are these (listening tours) even going to truly be open to the public, or are you going to remove people because it’s privately financed?” said State Rep. Anna Eskamani. “I mean, all of this feels really slimy and not in the best interests of everyday Floridians.”

The Florida Democratic Party called on Gruters to cancel the event in a statement released earlier this week, but added that if it were to happen, he should add the South Florida cities of Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami to the tour.

On Saturday, a day after this story was posted, Gruters told Florida Politics that he was now postponing the tour.

“The rhetoric across the political spectrum is so charged right now that in order to have a truly productive listening tour we’ve decided to postpone to a later date,” Gruters told the political website.


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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.