A Florida House panel's decision to hear Thursday from a speaker with a history of inflammatory statements about minorities and immigrants roiled the normally peaceful legislative committee week in Tallahassee and prompted Democrats to walk out of the hearing.
The controversy stemmed from a decision by the House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee to invite Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, to testify during a discussion of resettling refugees, particularly those from war-torn Syria.
Krikorian's organization has been linked to the white nationalist movement and has been the target of criticism from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups.
"This is racism, this is bigotry, this is hatred," Rep. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said outside the meeting. "Mr. Krikorian's invitation to speak today is an insult to myself, all of my colleagues who are minorities, and millions of Floridians we represent in our communities back home."
Shortly after the walkout, Florida Democrats sent out an email attempting to fundraise off the blow-up.
"The GOP is already attacking the legislators who took a stand for us against bigotry and hate. That is why we need to raise another $25,000 to defend them against any attack that come(s) their way," the email said.
Krikorian has frequently caused ripples with his commentary, both on Twitter and for publications and websites like the National Review's online platform.
For example, in a 2010 blog post for the National Review Online, Krikorian wrote that one possible reason for Haiti being "so screwed up" is "because it wasn't colonized long enough" when compared to other Latin American countries.
"But, unlike Jamaicans and Bajans and Guadeloupeans, et al., after experiencing the worst of tropical colonial slavery, the Haitians didn't stick around long enough to benefit from it. ... And by benefit I mean develop a local culture significantly shaped by the more-advanced civilization of the colonizers," Krikorian wrote.
Earlier this month on Twitter, Krikorian responded to comments about civil rights from Democratic Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the civil-rights movement, by comparing Lewis to "the grown man who won the big game in high school and never stops talking about it."
During the House subcommittee meeting Thursday, Krikorian said it was impossible for the federal government to screen refugees from nations like Syria thoroughly, and said that some refugee communities formed "domestic breeding grounds for extremists" because terrorists could hide among even peaceful exiles.
In response to a question from Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican whose father came from Cuba and whose mother's family came from Puerto Rico, Krikorian suggested current refugees are different than earlier waves.
"When your parents came in the '60s or when my grandparents came as refugees from Turkish genocide in the Middle East, there was no cost to broader taxpayers, there were no welfare issues, and frankly, there weren't really security issues because there wasn't a lot of Armenian terrorism going on in the United States," said Krikorian, who spoke to the subcommittee through an online video service and was not at the meeting. "We are in a very different situation both because of the sending countries, the international environment, and because we have a much more extensive system of taxpayer-funded support for the poor."
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, House Speaker Richard Corcoran sidestepped a question about who initially decided to invite Krikorian to the subcommittee meeting.
"Ultimately, everything's approved through the speaker's office," he said.
But Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, pointed out that Krikorian is a published author who has testified to Congress. And Corcoran said offensive speech should be countered with better speech, while noting well-known Democrats had questioned Krikorian during his testimony to Congress.
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