Politics & Policy

Has Marco Rubio Really Learned His Lesson on Immigration?

(Win McNamee/Getty)

Let’s get real. No Republican rival of Marco Rubio is going to stand on a presidential debate stage and give him grief about speeding tickets, or purchasing an $80,000 boat, or cashing in a retirement account too early.

But every one of them will surely remind GOP primary voters of Rubio’s role in creating and supporting the “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration-reform bill. And that will be a much bigger problem for the Florida senator. He’ll be squeezed on both sides, hit both from the right, by challengers such as Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, and from the left, by his former mentor Jeb Bush.

The narrative that has taken hold, at least on the right — one that Rubio has enthusiastically pushed himself — is that in trying to pass the Gang of Eight bill, he played with fire, got burned, and learned his lesson. But a closer look at the positions the senator has taken on the issue over the years suggests that this may not be the case. His dizzying shifts on immigration make it hard to know what he really thinks on the issue and could leave him open to charges of political opportunism at the expense of principle.

RELATED: How Rubio Turned a New York Times Attack Into an Asset

The ill-fated 2013 proposal continues to haunt Rubio. His backing of the bill itself, his apparent, retrospective regret for the bill’s approach, and his uncharacteristic failure to clearly explain his position on illegal immigration even now have given the other 2016 contenders plenty of ammo.

His dizzying shifts on immigration make it hard to know what he really thinks on the issue.

He’s particularly vulnerable to the “flip-flopper” label this time around because his retreat from the Gang of Eight bill wasn’t the first time he’d “evolved” on immigration: He was indisputably against a Gang of Eight–​style bill when he ran for the Senate in 2010, before designing such a bill and then quickly repudiating it three years later.

In his Senate campaign against then-independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meeks, Rubio certainly sounded like a steadfast opponent of a path to citizenship for those who enter the U.S. illegally. In a May 2010 interview, he quipped, “We have a path for citizenship. It’s called coming legally into this country.”

“Three years later, Rubio was a key member of the bipartisan team putting together a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that included a path to citizenship. By April 2013, he was insisting that the path to citizenship in the bill didn’t constitute an amnesty. “What I said throughout my campaign was that I was against a blanket amnesty,” he said at the time. “And I was, and this is not blanket amnesty,” he argued, because illegal immigrants would pay “serious consequences” for breaking the law.

RELATED: Rubio: ‘There Is No Right to Illegally Immigrate’

His speech on the Senate floor the day the Gang of Eight bill passed didn’t use the words “amnesty” or “path to citizenship,” and it offered little detail about what the bill would actually do; it was almost entirely about his parents’ experiences and the poem “The New Colossus,” engraved and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

By October 2013, four months after the Senate had passed the Gang of Eight bill, Rubio had done another 180-degree turn and publicly opposed the bill’s passage in the House. He declared through a spokesman that “the most realistic way to make progress on immigration would be through a series of individual bills.”

“As soon as the Senate passed the bill he had been the front-man for, he announced that the bill took the wrong approach,” says Roy Beck, founder and president of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for less immigration. “Since then, he hasn’t so much flip-flopped, as constantly giving descriptions of his position that may be designed to sound different to different audiences” – emphasizing border and workplace enforcement to those wary of a path to citizenship, emphasizing the path to permanent residency to groups that want leniency for illegal immigrants. Beck contends Rubio’s position hasn’t changed from “wanting to give work permits to nearly all illegal aliens so they can compete equally with American workers for jobs.”

RELATED: Rubio Channels JFK on the Campaign Trail in Iowa

Rubio’s team is quick to point to comments he made as early as January 2013 that he would prefer “a comprehensive package of bills— maybe four or five as opposed to one omnibus” on immigration. But ultimately, he backed the Senate’s comprehensive reform bill before quickly retreating in the face of harsh criticism from conservatives.

“It’s not the bill that Marco would have written if we were writing our own bill,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant says now. “We never argued that the Senate bill was perfect, we always said that there was a lot of room for improvement. Our hope was that it would have improved further if the House had moved forward on it.”

This year, when discussing how to change immigration laws, the usually smooth-tongued Rubio has offered a bundle of complicated and conditional scenarios for what he would and would not support.

This year, when discussing how to change immigration laws, the usually smooth-tongued Rubio has offered a bundle of complicated and conditional scenarios for what he would and would not support — particularly with regard to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration policy of exempting those who entered the country illegally before they were 16 from deportation, and allowing them to obtain renewable two-year work permits.

In an interview with MSNBC shortly after he’d announced his campaign in April, Rubio seemed almost deliberately murky:

I’ve always said that eventually that will not be the permanent policy of the United States. It will have to come to an end at some point. And I hope it comes to an end because we’ve improved our immigration laws, we’ve improved the way we enforce our immigration laws, so that future illegal immigration is under control and third, that we’ve been able to accommodate those people who have been in the country for a long period of time, especially young people. At some point DACA is going to have to end, there’s no doubt about it.

His interlocutor asked him, for clarification, “But you wouldn’t repeal it right away?”

Absolutely, I wouldn’t. And the reason why is it would be very disruptive. People are working, they’re in school, they’re employees, and suddenly overnight they would be illegally in the country. But ultimately, there will come a point when it will have to end. Maybe not in six months, but at some point it will have to end.

Rubio complicated the issue a few days later when, during an interview, conducted in Spanish, with Univision host Jorge Ramos, he phrased his view in a way that many interpreted as supporting DACA: “I believe DACA is important. It can’t be terminated from one moment to the next, because there are already people benefiting from it.” The Rubio camp briefly contended his remarks were mistranslated, and that Rubio’s position remained that DACA “cannot be the permanent policy of the land.”

The Rubio campaign says that his position is clearly laid out in American Dreams, the book he published earlier this year. “We will never have the votes needed in Congress to modernize any part of our immigration system until the issue of illegal immigration is dealt with first,” he writes. “Considering our recent experience with massive pieces of legislation, achieving comprehensive reform of anything in a single bill is simply not realistic.”

RELATED: Rubio the Average American

He goes on to call for “a sequential and piecemeal way, with a series of bills that build upon one another.” He argues for more border-security personnel, more fencing, a national E-verify system for employment, and an entry and exit visa-tracking system. But he also proposes issuing work permits and temporary nonimmigrant visas to those illegal immigrants who learn English and pass a background check, and allowing such individuals to apply for permanent residency status after a decade.

None of this has reassured the conservative pundits and voters already inclined to mistrust Rubio. Radio show host Laura Ingraham rips him regularly, and Ann Coulter’s new book, Adios America, tears into Rubio for his support of the Gang of Eight plan. Whether or not such pundits speak for the GOP primary electorate as a whole, it’s inconceivable that Rubio’s foes won’t hit him on this issue early and often.

#related#But Rubio could also take fire on immigration from a rather less-expected source: His most natural rival for voters and donors, Jeb Bush, whose moderate immigration views are a perceived weakness of his own.

On a conference call with Alabama supporters late last month, Bush discussed his support for “a path to earned legal status, not citizenship” and accused unnamed figures of “abandon[ing] their views,” a comment that some saw, justifiably, as a shot at Rubio.

If Bush’s comment was indeed aimed at Rubio, then the Florida governor will attempt to argue his record of steadfast support for a path to earned legal status is superior to Rubio’s shifts, and Rubio will continue to find himself squeezed on both sides: from the right by challengers like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, and from the left by Bush.

“We want people to change their minds,” says Beck, of NumbersUSA, adding that he welcomes amnesty proponents who rethink their position and embrace a tougher stance. “But it means more to us if they acknowledge that they did.”

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review.

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