Democrats prod Miami Republican up for OAS ambassador over immigration bill

State Rep. Carlos Trujillo presented then-presidential candidate Donald Trump with a Cuban guayabera at at September 2016 campaign event in Little Havana.
State Rep. Carlos Trujillo presented then-presidential candidate Donald Trump with a Cuban guayabera at at September 2016 campaign event in Little Havana. EL NUEVO HERALD

A 2015 bill in the Florida Legislature that would have made it a felony for an undocumented immigrant who was previously deported, or facing a deportation order, to be in the state was a point of contention for Democrats during state Rep. Carlos Trujillo’s Senate confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States on Thursday.

Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., challenged Trujillo’s bill during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing chaired by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Trujillo ally.

“In 2015 you authored what I would consider to be a Draconian bill in the Florida Legislature that would have made not complying with a deportation order a felony punishable up to 30 years in prison,” Menendez said. “Give me a sense of what you meant by that bill because when you deal with the ambassadors to these countries they’re going to know this and... some of these countries, Mexico, Guatemala and others in Central America are good partners with us at the OAS. So this is going to be a bit of a challenge and I want to hear what your intent was and how you’re going to deal with that.”

Trujillo told Menendez he would have done things differently.

“I would not have supported that bill on the floor the way it was drafted,” Trujillo said. “It was poorly drafted, it never captured my original intent. My original intent for that bill was to codify federal statute for legal reentry post-deportation, post all of due process being exhausted.”

Trujillo, a Republican and vocal supporter of President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, was announced as the White House’s appointment for OAS ambassador in October, just two months after Trump named him one of four U.S. representatives to the United Nations General Assembly. That job made Trujillo one of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s four deputies.

As OAS ambassador, the Cuban-American Trujillo would become a leading voice on U.S. policy toward Cuba and Venezuela, countries of key importance to South Florida immigrants and to Rubio, a Trujillo friend and go-to adviser to Trump on Latin America. Trujillo is bilingual and a married father of four.

Trujillo said Thursday that engaging Caribbean countries who side with Venezuela against the United States during OAS votes will be a high priority for him if confirmed by the Senate.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica and St. Kitts and Nevis joined Venezuela allies Nicaragua and Bolivia to sink a U.S.-backed OAS resolution that would have condemned Venezuela’s constituent assembly in June.

“I think it’s extremely important for these countries to realize the importance of the humanitarian side that’s happening in Venezuela,” Trujillo said, adding that reducing the U.S.’s financial contributions to the OAS would also be a high priority for him.

Menendez also jabbed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who could be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, for not attending high-level OAS meetings during his tenure leading the State Department.

“Will you recommend to the secretary that at some point he personally participate in critical OAS meetings?” Menendez said.

“I will, Senator,” Trujillo replied.

Despite the critical questions from Menendez and Kaine, Rubio noted that a relatively empty chamber during the confirmation hearing was likely a sign for Trujillo and other administration appointees who testified on Thursday that Democrats will not block their nominations.

“The fact that the whole committee isn’t here is good news,” Rubio said.

Trujillo also affirmed that taking a hard line on Venezuela will be a major priority of his work if confirmed at the OAS, a position that some Democrats like Menendez support.

Trujillo declined to answer questions about his nomination after the hearing because it is ongoing, but he did confirm that he will need to leave his Florida House seat early if selected as OAS ambassador.

Two Republicans have already filed to run for Trujillo’s GOP-leaning House District 105: former U.S. Rep. David Rivera and Doral Councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez. So have two Democrats, Javier Estevez and Ross Hancock. The district extends from western Miami-Dade County into Collier County. Trujillo is term-limited next year.

Last year, Trujillo presented then-candidate Trump with a classic Cuban guayabera at a Little Havana campaign event. In June, Trujillo shared the stage with Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway at a Miami-Dade Republican Party fundraising dinner.

“I generally have an affinity for Cubans — even when they are Republican,” Menendez, a fellow Cuban-American, said to Trujillo as he wrapped up his questioning.

Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty