TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Florida are postponing an immigration "listening tour," saying a charged atmosphere after the El Paso, Texas, shootings and the Mississippi immigration raids won't lead to a productive discussion.
Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida, said Monday that the statewide tour scheduled to start next week will be pushed back, probably until November.
"The rhetoric is so charged across the total spectrum that in order to have a productive listening tour, we've decided to change it to a later date," said Gruters.
He said he wants to have a discussion on what the state can do about immigrants in the country illegally because Washington has failed to fix the immigration problem. But he thinks the shootings that left 22 dead in El Paso, and the Mississippi poultry plant immigration raids that rounded up 680 mostly Latino workers would distract from his goal.
"I'm trying to approach this with as much of an open mind as possible. Make no mistake, I'm no fan of illegal immigration; I'm a fan of immigration the right way," Gruters said. "DC's inaction and their failures have resulted in Floridians doing what we have to do to protect ourselves in terms of public safety."
Gruters and Republican Rep. Cord Byrd were to lead the three-day tour. They are the lawmakers that sponsored bills requiring local governments cooperate with federal authorities enforcing immigration laws. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the sanctuary policy ban into law.
The bill was one of the most contested of the 2019 legislative session, with dozens of immigrants and their advocates arguing that it would stir prejudices against immigrants and break up families.
Gruters is a longtime supporter of President Donald Trump and chaired his 2016 Florida campaign. When the session ended, Gruters traveled to El Paso and released a video of his visit to the border. It came before the El Paso shootings. In it, he echoes some of Trump's talking points, saying drug traffickers, gang members, sex traffickers and potential terrorists are coming across the border.
Gruters said he is also postponing filing immigration-related legislation for the 2020 session, saying the wants to hear from the public first.
"Cord and I, even though we are the guys who brought you the sanctuary cities ban, we also want to have an open dialogue," he said. "One of the main reasons I was criticized before the sanctuary city ban is that I didn't listen to enough people, that's why I want to go out there and listen to what the people want."
But Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani, who helped organize opposition to the sanctuary policy ban, said Gruters is disingenuous when he speaks of having an open ear on the immigration debate. She said he should cancel, not postpone, the tour.
"He's terrorized immigrant communities," Eskamani said. "He has given up neutrality in this debate and it's very difficult for him to restore that."
She said immigrants would be reluctant to attend an event organized by the men who passed the sanctuary policy ban, and the events would have likely just be a group of people who support Gruters' views on immigration.
"At this point he needs to understand that any sincerity was lost last session," Eskamani said. "It seems like this is more about optics and political campaigning than actually listening to people."