Florida House Democrats walked out of a Thursday morning hearing on refugees in protest of a presenter they described as "evil," a "racist" and the leader of a "hate group."
The man at issue is Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, brought in via Skype to give information about security concerns related to refugees. His center has been flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center for spreading "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."
When Krikorian's remarks began about halfway through a two-hour Children, Families and Seniors subcommittee meeting on refugees, five Democrats stood up and walked out, joining Democratic leaders in the hallway. After he was finished presenting, they returned to the room.
It's a rare sign of protest in a Legislature where members tend to defer to one another and act extraordinarily polite in public settings.
"I was disappointed," subcommittee chair Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said. "I would have hoped that they would like to hear and listen to a divergence of opinion and ask those tough questions. Challenge the speaker, ask the questions. That's how you learn."
Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa said members of the minority party had no choice but to stage a walk-out. She sent a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, late Wednesday demanding Krikorian's invitation to speak be revoked.
The presentation was not cancelled, and Harrell began the hearing by asking all of its members to listen to diverse ideas and consider them as part of the policy making process.
"The House does not endorse the views of any speaker here, but we are simply allowing a free exchange of ideas," she said.
But Cruz said listening to Krikorian's ideas was not a productive part a policy debate. And, she said, Krikorian's presentation was different from just listening to diverse viewpoints of people who choose to give testimony at a public meeting because he was invited by Harrell to present his views.
"The problem we have is with the individual who wishes to influence the policy process," she said. "We want to be part of a policy discussion, and we will, but we will not sit in the face of darkness."
While Democrats spoke out against him in the hallway, Krikorian's presentation went on inside. He expressed a need for a "strict vetting process" for refugees.
"How stringent can the vetting really be if almost everyone who's vetted is accepted?" he asked lawmakers.
Krikorian's Center for Immigration Studies, which describes itself as "low-immigration, pro-immigrant" on its website, was founded by to produce studies and reports backing the anti-immigration Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Both groups were founded by John Tanton, a Michigan eye doctor described as "the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
Krikorian has also presented before Congress on immigration issues, and in 2013 denounced white nationalism as "pernicious" and "evil" in a Washington Post profile, though he also said white nationalism is caused by high levels of immigration.
That appears to be a high priority issue for House Republicans. Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, sponsored legislation that would remove the state of Florida from federal refugee resettlement programs, leaving that work to private organizations.
"The challenge of properly vetting refugees and securing the homeland is a serious -- and sometimes uncomfortable -- undertaking that requires all of us to listen, learn, and debate without allowing outside political spats to stifle the free exchange of ideas," Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said in a written statement. "My friends on the other side know the seriousness of the subject matter and I pray they comport themselves accordingly. No matter what, we will, and do the business the people sent us here to do."
But Democrats oppose the premise that there is danger among refugees, pointing out that there are no documented cases of a refugee-caused terrorist incident within the state's boundaries, and saying Florida should continue to be open to people fleeing dangerous places.
"Why are we negotiating what's right?" Dubose said. "What's right is right."
Photo: State Rep. Kionne McGhee walks out of a House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee on Thursday in Democrats' protest of Mark Krikorian, a presenter they say is "racist." (Michael Auslen, Times/Herald)