Top Florida GOP Leaders Drop Immigration Townhall meetings. Why? They Fear What Might Be Asked Of Them.


Joe Gruters

Joe Gruters

After a mass shooting in Texas intensified a partisan divide about immigration, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida has decided to postpone a statewide “listening tour” focused on the controversial topic.

“The rhetoric is so charged across the political spectrum that in order to have a truly productive listening tour we’ve decided to delay to a later date,” state Sen. Joe Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the state GOP, told The News Service of Florida in a text message Monday.

Gruter’s decision to delay the tour, first reported by Florida Politics, came a week after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 people were killed. Authorities said the accused gunman wrote online that the attack was in response to an “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

This spring, Gruters and state Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, sponsored a controversial measure that banned so-called sanctuary cities in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned on the issue, signed the measure into law in June.

The Republican legislators had planned to conduct a six-city tour of the state to gather support for other immigration-related legislation, beginning in Venice, St. Petersburg and Altamonte Springs next week.

But Gruters said the debate sparked by the Texas massacre prompted him to put the plans on hold, at least for now.

“With everything going on we felt it would be best to give it a little time,” Gruters said.

Gruters still intends to hold the tour before the start of the 2020 legislative session in January, when he hopes to champion bills that would further crack down on illegal immigration. 

One of the proposals would require all Florida employers to use E-Verify, a federal electronic system that checks employees’ eligibility to work in the U.S., Gruters told the News Service in July. Gruters is also backing a bill that “would enhance penalties for convicted and deported criminals who re-enter the United States illegally,” the Sarasota Republican said in a text message last month.

But the measures may also be facing a cooling-off period, he said.

“I will wait on any immigration-related bill until the tour takes place. That is the plan, I should say,” Gruters said Monday.

Cord, who helped Gruters successfully push for the ban on sanctuary cities and who is slated to join his Senate counterpart on the listening tour, said in a text message Monday that he believes all Florida Republicans are “concerned at how heated the rhetoric has become.”

Senate President Bill Galvano said that crafting policy that enforces legal immigration should not be used as a “catalyst to engage in language that inflames hate,” but that lawmakers should not hesitate to encourage people “to conduct themselves in a lawful matter.” 

“What is also important is that in doing so, the rhetoric is not inflammatory, and that the messaging is clear in terms of, ‘let’s make progress, do things right, etc.,’ and isn’t designed to evoke emotions,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the News Service, prior to reports that Gruters had postponed the immigration tour.

Byrd, meanwhile, said he hopes there can be a “productive discussion” on immigration and what the state can do to address the issue.

“I think I am known as someone who never shies away from debate and is not a bomb thrower. I will debate anyone, anytime, anywhere but I am not interested in just yelling at each other,” Byrd said.

Since planning for the tour began several weeks ago, Democrats and immigrant advocates have slammed the idea, in part because there were no scheduled stops in South Florida, a region of the state which is heavily populated by Hispanics.

“Instead of going into immigrant communities impacted by the nationalism and xenophobia his anti-immigrant bills have inspired — Senator Gruters is holding staged stops in cities and communities that are majority white and majority Republican,” Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Penalosa said in a prepared statement issued on Aug. 5, two days after the Texas shooting.

Gruters last week added a stop in Miami, but state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, urged him to cancel the appearance, warning it would only make matters worse.

“By design or by consequence, it will only stoke charges rhetoric directed at persons of color and immigrants already at a fever pitch,” Rodriguez wrote to Gruters on Wednesday.