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Emotions erupt as ‘zero tolerance’ policy overtakes Florida politics

Gov. Rick Scott visits Puerto Rico as focus shifts to a detention center in Homestead, south of Miami.
The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children [Miami Herald]
The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children [Miami Herald]
Published Jun. 19, 2018|Updated Jun. 20, 2018

The raw emotions over President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy on immigration swept across the Florida political landscape Tuesday in the midst of a pivotal midterm election.

A growing chorus of Florida Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott, abandoned Trump on separating young children from their parents at the border, with some demanding an immediate end to the policy.

"I absolutely do not agree with the practice of separating children from their families," Scott wrote late Tuesday to a top federal official who oversees the detention program. "This practice needs to stop now."

READ MORE: This is the child immigration compound in Homestead, Fla.

Nelson, Wasserman Schultz shut out of facility holding immigrant kids

Scott's letter represents a further break from Trump on immigration and came only after a day of intense criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike over the use of a 1,000-bed shelter in Homestead, south of Miami, where 94 children have been separated from their families. Earlier Tuesday, Scott's opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, was refused entry along with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston and state Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami.

"Right now you guys are trespassing on federal property," a uniformed man told the trio as they walked toward the shelters.

"This is not a good day for our country," Nelson said on Twitter. "The Trump administration does not want us to check on the welfare and care of the children inside."

Nelson, quoting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said 94 children were separated from their families and were at the Homestead shelter from May 6 to June 17 during the "zero tolerance" period. Overall, HHS estimates that 2,300 children have been separated from their families.

"It's only, I think, in the last few days, 10 to 15 days, that it was reopened. So we're trying to learn more on what the numbers are," said Sen. Marco Rubio, Nelson's Republican counterpart.

The shelter is a former federal Job Corps center with classrooms, dorms and recreational facilities. It was opened for a media tour two years ago when President Barack Obama's administration faced scrutiny over a large number of children illegally entering the U.S. from Central America.

The shelter is run by a private vendor, Comprehensive Health Services of Cape Canaveral, under a contract with the federal government.

Scott was in Puerto Rico for most of Tuesday, his seventh visit in 10 months, to offer guidance to leaders rebuilding the island, as immigration took control of the political narrative in a year when both houses of Congress are at stake.

Initially, Scott's campaign avoided mention of Trump's role in setting the policy by aiming the statement at Nelson: "The mess at our border is a direct result of career politicians like Bill Nelson who are talkers, not doers."

Securing the border against illegal immigration is popular with many voters. But stark images and haunting audio of toddlers, separated from their parents and sobbing at a Texas shelter, has unleashed widespread revulsion and demands for action across the U.S. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nelson's office said it had received 1,300 calls and 1,500 emails from people — "99 percent against Trump's policy."

But Trump appears more determined than ever to make immigration a central issue of the fall campaign, a potentially risky strategy in Florida, which has a huge and diverse immigrant population.

A CNN poll said 58 percent of Republicans support Trump's policy, but overall, two-thirds of Americans oppose it.

"I unabashedly support the president and what he's doing," said Neil Combee, a Republican candidate for an open congressional seat in Polk and Hillsborough counties. "You may have to accept some painful imagery to enforce the law. Somebody's got to take drastic steps in this day and age. I hope this pain is short-term."

State Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who was co-chair of Trump's winning Florida campaign, said: "I'm glad the president is forcing this issue to the forefront … As a country, we have to decide, do we want borders or not?"

In the Republican primary for governor, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis told a crowd in Bradenton: "I'd keep the family together and repatriate them back as a family unit."

Regarding immigrants who seek to stay in the U.S. by claiming political asylum, DeSantis said Monday evening: "If you do an asylum claim, you're supposed to go to a recognized port of entry. These (immigrants) are not at the recognized ports of entry. They're basically illegally crossing."

DeSantis' rival, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, praised Trump's immigration policies in a fund-raising appeal.

"He's securing our borders, reforming chain migration, ending the visa lottery program and finding solutions to problems that have been ignored for years by the Left," said Putnam, who served a decade in Congress from 2000 to 2010, a period of political stalemates over immigration.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called Putnam's pitch to donors "morally reprehensible."

Putnam's campaign issued a statement Tuesday that, according to the Associated Press, said: "It's important that we enforce our laws in a humane way and families should be kept together."

By forcing immigration back into the national spotlight, Trump could hurt Republican candidates such as Scott, said Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP strategist and prominent Trump critic.

"This is a polling disaster for Republicans," Wilson said. "When the rubber meets the road and the kid meets the cage, it's a different story. Suddenly it isn't like scary, hulking, dark-skinned Mexican MS-13 criminals. Suddenly it's a screaming child who can't find her mama. That's a really different political and emotional picture.

"The people that love Donald Trump and love immigration as their core issue, they are hearing exactly what they want to hear," Wilson added. "But this has managed to repel other people and horrify them. It's not working as a net political win."

In the Democratic primary for governor, Gwen Graham called on Scott to prevent the Trump administration from housing, in Florida, the children separated from families. Graham said Scott should be working to obtain volunteer legal assistance for families.

"We know Trump won't do it — so now is the time for our state's leaders to step up and show compassion. These are children," said Graham, one of five Democrats seeking the party's nomination for governor in the primary on Aug. 28.

Graham filed a public records request with Scott's office, seeking all communication between the state and federal government about the Homestead center.

Scott's office said it was not aware of any state resources being used at Homestead.

In his letter late Tuesday, Scott asked U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to notify the state of any future unaccompanied children being moved into the Homestead facility, and asked whether the children who are there are being given health screenings and educational programs.

READ MORE: Rick Scott: I oppose separating families at the border

Several other governors exercised more forceful action. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, withdrew an offer to send  his state's National Guard troops to the Texas border.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, issued an executive order preventing use of any state resources in support of the federal detention policy.

"It's hard for me to imagine that this is happening in the United States of America at the scale it is — at any scale," Hickenlooper was quoted in the Denver Post.

Andrew Gillum, a Democratic candidate for governor, called on Scott to issue an order similar to Colorado's.

Times/Herald staff writers Emily L. Mahoney, David Smiley and Brenda Medina contributed to this report.

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