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‘Leave us alone’: Pressure mounts to cancel GOP chair’s postponed immigration tour

“Leave us alone with this stuff,” said state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami.
Left to Right: Florida Senators Jason Pizzo, D- North Miami Beach, and Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, debate Gruters Sanctuary Cities bill on the floor of the Senate, Thursday, May 2, 2019. It later passed. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Aug. 13

After state Sen. Joe Gruters announced that he was postponing his statewide immigration “listening tour,” some in the Miami community are saying he should cancel it for good.

The Sarasota Republican, who doubles as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, had just last week added a stop in Miami on the six-city tour, which originally did not include any stops in South Florida, a top five region for undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“Leave us alone with this stuff,” said state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami. “If he wants to do this in his own district in Sarasota, go for it. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for it here.”

RELATED STORY: Florida GOP chair’s immigration listening tour postponed after mass shooting

Gruters and Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune, who spearheaded the new law that bans so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida, had planned to gather support for other immigration-related legislation, beginning in Venice, St. Petersburg and Altamonte Springs next week.

Rodríguez penned a letter to Gruters last week dissuading him from coming to Miami, saying the “sanctuary cities” bill stoked fear in his majority Latino district, and that when they traveled to Tallahassee to speak out against the bill, “their voices were not listened to.”

Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miami Lakes, echoed the sentiment.

“It would’ve been great had they listened to our community when this bill was drafted and later debated,” she said. “My hope is that by canceling this type of political rally they’ll have realized what hatred and fear-mongering of a community can cause. El Paso is a sad reminder to Latinos like me, that hatred is a real thing in America.”

RELATED STORY: Ban on ‘sanctuary cities’ to become Florida law after anguished debate

The temporary cancellation of the tour, first reported by Florida Politics, comes in the wake of a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were killed.

After the shooting Rodríguez stood alongside two El Paso women and a group of activists with his colleague, Sen. Annette Taddeo, at a rally in front of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, calling for action against gun violence and white nationalism.

The accused gunman wrote online that the attack was in response to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” The shooting intensified a partisan divide about immigration, of which Gruters took note.

“The rhetoric is so charged across the political spectrum that in order to have a truly productive listening tour we’ve decided to delay to a later date,” Gruters told the Miami Herald in a text message Monday.

Gruters is not a stranger to the rhetoric, however. The senator ran two ads during his state Senate campaign last October referring to a caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America as an “invasion.”

The website and marketing for the tour were paid for by Florida Conservatives United, Gruters’ political committee that paid for the campaign ads.

The senator still intends to hold the tour (including a Miami stop) before the 2020 legislative session commences in January, when he plans to file more immigration-centric bills, including a proposal that would require all Florida employers to use E-Verify, a federal electronic system that checks employees’ eligibility to work in the U.S.

Since the tour was announced weeks ago, Democrats and immigrant advocates have slammed the idea.

Andrea Mercado, executive director of the New Florida Majority, said the Latino community is traumatized, and that political rhetoric surrounding immigration is only feeding the “unleashed vigilante violence” seen in El Paso.

“We would like for it to be canceled,” she said of the tour. “We are clearly living in times where political rhetoric is inflaming physical violence and death.”

Tomas Kennedy, political director of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition, said the postponed tour suggests “an inkling of shame,” but that he suspects the events won’t be canceled.

“They know it looks insensitive and offensive to have this tour now,” he said. “There’s no introspection and moment of catharsis. It’s about political calculation.”

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