Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has quickly become one of the Republican Party’s great hopes, regularly mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility and vital to recapturing Hispanic voters, whose defection to Barack Obama and the Democrats helped cost the party the 2012 presidential election.
But when he came to Washington, Rubio quickly found himself in a political bind. He was elected with strong Tea Party support and the House Tea Party caucus expected him to vote with it. The Tea Party position on illegal immigration is simple: In the words of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.: “You make sure that people who are here illegally do not get jobs, and they don’t get benefits and they will go home. It’s attrition.”
Rubio says it’s not the same as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s politically damaging policy of “self-deportation.” But unless there’s some subtlety that’s been overlooked, it’s a distinction without a difference.
Hispanic voters naturally expected Rubio, the Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants, to be sympathetic to their issues, especially on illegal immigration.
He became a member of the Gang of Eight bipartisan senators that withdrew from the public eye to draw up an immigration reform bill. The other gang members, who span the political spectrum, are: Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Even as the Gang of Eight members were drafting the bill, Rubio ducked or brushed off questions about its particulars. As late as midweek, he was being described as a “wild card” in the proceedings.
By week’s end, Capitol Hill was describing Rubio as “going all in” on immigration reform. “After weeks of offering lukewarm support, Rubio is preparing to fully embrace a measure that is the most significant of his young political career,” the newspaper Politico reported. Doing so, it added, could launch him as a leading presidential contender or it could permanently damage him with Tea Party conservatives, especially because it hands a major victory to Obama.
The immigration bill would be a landmark if it passes. It would put many of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, strengthen border security, require verification of workers’ status and establish special visa programs for farm workers and high-tech workers.
Rubio has committed to campaign hard for the bill, beginning with the usual round of Sunday talk shows. More power to him.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.