Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) unexpectedly became a darling of conservative media last week while promoting an immigration reform plan that includes a path to citizenship for the reportedly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
On January 28, the Cuban American junior senator introduced a comprehensive immigration reform proposal alongside a bipartisan group of senators, called the “Gang of Eight,” which includes long-time immigration reform advocates John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The senators presented a “framework” for reform, not draft legislation.
Rubio then went on a media blitz to ensure Republicans that he was not offering “amnesty,” and that he would only support a bill that coupled pathways to legalization with harsh enforcement policies.
With a few exceptions (like the National Review editor Rich Lowry and conservative talking head Ann Coulter), he was received well.
In an interview with Rubio on January 29, Rush Limbaugh gushed: “What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy. You are recognizing reality. You're trumpeting it, you're shouting it.”
Fox News’ Sean Hannity was similarly effusive: “This was the most interesting proposal that I had ever heard,” he told Rubio. “It seemed like you were really sincere in putting this to bed once and for all….”
The praise was surprising, although perhaps not as surprising as Rubio’s own about-face on comprehensive immigration reform. Rubio supported immigrant-friendly policies as a state representative in Florida, and spoke about advancing legislation for undocumented youth last year. He dropped that idea when Obama announced his deferred action policy last June, which allows some undocumented young people to apply for two-year visas.
But in 2010, when he was running for Senate, he dismissed Senator McCain’s previous immigration proposals as “amnesty,” and said that the Census should only count “legal citizens.” In the last few months, Rubio insisted that he was against one comprehensive immigration reform bill, preferring piecemeal legislation instead, and he did not initially join the “Gang of Eight,” which started to meet in early December 2012.
Rubio is clearly hoping that his embrace of comprehensive immigration reform now will help him woo Latino voters if he runs for President in 2016.
In order to accomplish this goal, Rubio will have to court the Spanish-speaking media, which he has not always embraced.
In 2011, Rubio got into a fight with the Spanish-language network Univision – which is watched by two-thirds of Latino TV viewers in the U.S. – over a news story it released about his brother-in-law, who was convicted of drug trafficking in 1989 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Rubio claimed Univision had not contacted him for the story.
Last June, while promoting his new memoir, An American Son, Rubio sat down for his first Univision interview with Jorge Ramos, perhaps the most prominent Spanish-language journalist in the United States. Ramos challenged him on a number of his positions, summing up his viewers’ concerns that Rubio’s politics were “anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant”:
“…You could be the first Hispanic president in the history of the United States, you are perhaps one of the most important Hispanic leaders that the United States has had, but at the same time many believe that you have anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant positions…. You are in favor of the Arizona law that persecutes immigrants, you are against the DREAM Act that would benefit undocumented immigrants, you are against the legalization that would benefit the undocumented, you want to make English the official language, many think that these are anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant positions.”
Last week, Rubio did make time during his media rounds for a Univision interview to promote the bipartisan proposal. The morning show host pressed him on the timeline for reform, and under his plan, how quickly an undocumented person could become a citizen. Rubio was vague about the timeline.
If Rubio is to be a viable candidate in 2016, he cannot simply appease his fellow Republicans – he will have to work hard to prove to Democrat-leaning Latinos that he is serious about immigration reform.