State Sen. Joe Gruters already postponed a listening tour of immigration issues, but now advocates for immigrant communities say they want the series of events canceled entirely.
The Florida Immigrant Coalition just launched a paid digital ad campaign demanding the Sarasota Republican “Stop The GOP Hate Tour.”
Images plaster Gruters’ face alongside that of Unite The Right protesters at a Charlottesville rally that turned deadly in 2017.
“The type of rhetoric Sen. Gruters has used in the past is tied to the type of violence we have seen throughout the country,” said Thomas Kennedy, political director for the Coalition.
He referenced specifically campaign season ads by Gruters’ Senate campaign demanding the federal government “stop the caravan invasion and lock down our borders!”
That echoed campaign rhetoric of the time about a caravan of refugees from Central America. President Donald Trump also called migrant caravans invasions during rallies. Now-Gov. Ron DeSantis called the caravans fronts for drug cartels.
In December, Trump tweeted the caravan ultimately never came to the border because of “our newly built Walls, makeshift Walls & Fences, or Border Patrol Officers & Military.”
Gruters does not apologize for using the term “invasion” and said advocates are ignoring real threats.
“We have 100,000+ people crossing our border illegally every month unchecked with some bringing with them drugs, sex trafficking victims and gang members,” he said. “The definition of invasion says what is it. People want legal immigration and it done the right way.”
He maintained the listening tour would be open to all points of view, and that he wanted advocates to participate.
But Kennedy said rhetoric around the issue suggested otherwise.
“It’s a partisan political thing meant to rile up the more extreme elements of the Republican base ahead of 2020,” Kennedy said. “The idea is not solutions-oriented and should be abandoned.”
The Immigrant Coalition delivered the strongest opposition during the legislative session to a so-called sanctuary cities ban. Gruters sponsored the bill in the Senate, and state Rep. Cord Byrd, who was also part of the listening tour, sponsored the House version.
Gruters also serves as chair of the Republican Party of Florida, and in 2016 co-chaired Trump’s presidential campaign in Florida.
“We don’t believe Sen. Gruters to be a good-faith actor, and we don’t believe him to actually want to solve immigration issues to the benefit of our communities,” Kennedy said.
He contrasted Gruters’ actions on immigration issues to other lawmakers like state Sen. David Simmons. The Longwood Republican has come out in support of work permits and driver’s licenses for undocumented residents.
“We don’t agree with everything he’s saying,” Kennedy said of Simmons. “But at least he is looking at some ways of not making the lives of immigrants in Florida, who are working and contributing to society, more intolerable.”
Notably, however, Simmons supported and vocally defended Gruters’ immigration bill last year.
Gruters postponed the listening tour after a suspected white nationalist shot and killed 22 people in El Paso. Kennedy tied that shooting to invasion rhetoric, but Gruters said he wanted no association with hate or white nationalist groups.
The Senator maintains the listening tour, which he hopes to conduct during the legislative session in 2020, will seek out solutions to the problems around immigration.
He noted federal officials set much of the border policy, but Congressional leaders have not worked together to find solutions. Therefore, Florida leaders must address the issue.
“Sticking your head in the sand and hoping the issues surrounding illegal immigration and the issues that Florida faces as a result is not a solution,” he said.