WASHINGTON — Leading Florida Republicans cautiously responded to President Donald Trump's immigration restrictions, agreeing largely that more screening is required while expressing discomfort with the scope of the actions that have triggered worldwide outcry.
Democrats swiftly decried the restrictions, which are directed at seven majority-Muslim countries, and warned of consequences.
"President Trump's executive order targeting and banning legal permanent residents and refugees from war-torn areas is illegal, immoral and un-American," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "It has made us less safe. If the president wants to empower jihadists, this is the way to do it."
But Republicans were slower and more varied in their reactions, or remained silent. The response underscores the challenge Trump's policies have created for a party that still harbors reservations about him but espouses a tougher response to terrorism.
It took Sen. Marco Rubio two days to respond to Trump's Friday afternoon order. He said he supported "additional vetting for many of those entering our country from nations where the United States has identified there are serious concerns regarding terrorist activities and planning."
But Rubio added there are "unanswered questions and concerns," including whether changes to a visa waiver program could affect the state economy. He avoided mentioning the word Muslim but said he is "committed to the defense of religious liberty and our tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution."
Months ago, Rubio was more direct in criticizing Trump's proposal and said Muslims were allies in fighting extremism both abroad and at home.
"I believe or I would hope that we would have the opportunity to encourage him, if he's elected president, in a different direction about how to deal with the problem he's trying to deal with, is radical Islamic terror," Rubio said in June on Face the Nation.
Saying he would be a check on Trump's power, Rubio pledged to work to undue the proposal, something the statement Sunday did not mention.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who like Rubio ran for president against Trump, also previously criticized Trump's proposal. But Bush did not comment over the weekend or respond to a request on Monday.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, a major Trump supporter, said Monday that she did not agree with a ban on "all Muslims," adding "I support a temporary ban on those seven certain countries so we can properly vet immigrants to allow true refugees into our great country while preventing potential terrorist organizations from entering."
Gov. Rick Scott, another Trump backer, disputed the characterization of a Muslim ban. "We have Muslims that love our state and Muslims that love our country and then we have radical Islam. ... Our immigration system is a mess. We all care about public safety and so we all need to work together to figure out how to improve our immigration system." Scott in 2015 called on Congress to block Syrian refugees.
Members of Congress offered a range of reactions — or waited until asked by reporters, as in the case of Tampa Bay Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who weighed in Monday evening, saying he supported restrictions but not the detention of green card holders.
Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Panama City, said: "It's common sense to set a temporary pause on immigration from countries that are bases of Islamic terrorism and recruitment. These countries were identified by the Obama Administration because of their links to terrorist recruitment activities, not any faith."
Rep. Brian Mast, R-Hutchinson Island, said: "Implementing a short-term ban on visas and refugee admissions to ensure our vetting procedures are keeping U.S. citizens safe is a reasonable approach. At the same time we must never forget that we are a nation of immigrants and a safe-harbor for those fleeing oppression."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, issued one of the most critical statements among Republicans.
"I object to the suspension of visas from the seven named countries because we could have accomplished our objective of keeping our homeland safe by immediate implementation of more thorough screening procedures," she said. "The new administration needs to pay careful attention to crafting orders that honor existing legal commitments and existing law, in contrast to this broad brush approach which doesn't focus on the precise problems."
Fellow Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he expected the executive orders are temporary "and that after the administration strengthens the vetting process, we can continue our tradition of welcoming those who are persecuted in an orderly manner and without any kind of religious test."
Democrats were even more critical.
"Our top priority is guaranteeing the safety and security of the American people, and I believe we need a thorough and comprehensive vetting process for all people seeking asylum or refuge," said Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton.
"However, the president's decision — to slam the door on all refugees for four months and Muslim refugees indefinitely, and to cut by more than half the number of refugees seeking safe haven this year — will leave thousands of vulnerable families and children around the world in limbo, leaving them to suffer horrific atrocities and persecution."
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson sought middle ground. "We have to do everything we can to protect ourselves from those who want to do us harm, but a hastily-issued policy that bans everyone from one of these seven countries from entering the U.S. — including the Iraqi interpreters who served alongside our troops in Iraq — is not the answer."
Times staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow @learyreports.