TALLAHASSEE — Florida House Democrats walked out of a Thursday morning hearing on refugees to protest an invited speaker whose ideas on immigration they said were inflammatory and offensive.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, was invited by House Republicans to a committee hearing to discuss security concerns related to refugees in the U.S. The House will soon consider removing Florida from a federal resettlement program for refugees.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, Krikorian has ties to white nationalists and his center spreads "anti-immigrant" ideas.
"Mr. Krikorian's invitation to speak today is an insult to myself and all of my colleagues and the millions of Floridians who we represent," said state Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale. "To be blunt, (he) is a racist, and the organization he's representing is a hate group."
As Krikorian began to speak via Skype, all five Democrats on the House's Children, Families and Seniors subcommittee panel stood up and walked out. After he was finished, they returned.
It's a rare sign of protest in a Legislature where members typically defer to one another and act extraordinarily polite in public.
"I was disappointed," said Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who chairs the committee. "I would have hoped that they would like to hear and listen to a divergence of opinion and ask those tough questions."
The legislative spotlight on refugees comes amid a populist wave that carried President Donald Trump into office on a platform opposing widespread immigration.
Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa said Democrats had no choice but to walk out after House leaders refused to cancel the presentation.
Krikorian's invitation to testify was approved by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. He defended Krikorian, citing "free speech" and his experience testifying before Congress and civil rights advocates including Democratic U.S. Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
"They didn't choose to walk out," Corcoran said. "They didn't choose to stage a press conference or turn it into a fundraising event."
After the walkout, the Florida Democratic Party sent an email to donors asking them to "chip in $10 and stand with them today."
But Cruz said the formal invitation gave credence to Krikorian's ideas, a show of support that ordinary residents who speak at public meetings don't receive.
While Democrats spoke out against him in the hallway, Krikorian told Republicans there's a need for a "strict vetting process" for refugees. Current processes involving federal agencies and the United Nations don't do enough to keep dangerous people out of the country, he said.
Krikorian's Center for Immigration Studies, whose website says "low-immigration, pro-immigrant" is one of three groups founded by John Tanton, a Michigan eye doctor the Southern Poverty Law Center calls "the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement." The SPLC says Krikorian has "carried on Tanton's racist legacy."
In a 2013 Washington Post profile, he denounced white nationalism as "pernicious" and "evil," though he also said white nationalism is caused by high levels of immigration.
State Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, is sponsoring legislation (HB 427) removing the state from federal refugee resettlement and leaving that work to private organizations contracted by the federal government.
"We're in a changing world," Santiago said. "And for us to just think that we don't continually need to respond to what's happening puts our citizens at risk."
Democrats oppose the premise that refugees pose a threat and point out that there are no documented cases of refugees committing terrorism in Florida.
"Why are we negotiating what's right?" DuBose said. "What's right is right."
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.