Immigration Reform 2013: The Tea Party Could Muck It All Up

Marco Rubio (R-FL.) has been the Republican face of immigration reform. A few Sunday’s ago he went on every major news show to promote the bill put forth by the so-called Gang of Eight. Rubio will be the first to tell you he doesn’t support amnesty. Rubio rarely utters a sentence without the qualifier “but this isn’t amnesty” attached to it. Rubio is working hard to get Tea-Party conservatives on board but don't expect him to cave into their demands any time soon. 

Marco Rubio was voted into the Senate in 2010 during the midterm elections. He was able to capitalize on the disdain Americans felt for Democrats, but more than that he ignited the fire within Tea Party Conservatives. It didn’t hurt that Rubio ran a targeted and integrated campaign that focused heavily on reaching out to voters across multiple social platforms. The story of his family and upbringing also struck a chord with Florida Tea Partiers and they carried him to victory with a comfortable margin. Now, however, Rubio feels slightly beholden to them and to the party he represents.

His Republican friends and conservative members of the media are less happy about his support of comprehensive immigration reform. Rush Limbaugh just flat out can’t understand why he supports it. “I don’t understand why we’re doing something that the Democrats are salivating over.” One of Rubio’s closest allies in the Senate was former Republican from South Carolina, Jim DeMint. DeMint left Congress to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation, the two are now on complete opposite sides of the Immigration issue.

The Heritage Foundation isn’t going to back away from an Immigration reform fight just because DeMint and Rubio are friendly with one another. That puts both friends in a rather odd position, as the New York Times pointed out. DeMint and the Heritage Foundation believe that comprehensive immigration reform will just cost tax payers too much money. DeMint would rather see each piece of the immigration reform bill passed separately. The Heritage Foundation is ready to spend a lot of money to see immigration reform defeated

It’s not only former colleagues that Rubio has to worry about, it’s the rather infamous Tea Party bloggers as well. Rubio has had to repeatedly dispel rather absurd theories about what will come out of immigration reform. The latest debunked theory concerns giving immigrants a “taxpayer-funded cell phone.” When Rubio has to explain to conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham  that he hasn’t been duped by Democrats, it detracts from what Rubio is fighting for. Rubio is constantly being pushed to play the defensive role on this issue and that’s not a position of power. Selling Republicans on this isn't going to be easy, which is why we are beginning to see ads like this one run in states like Texas.


What Rubio really has to contend with is the feeling of betrayal that some conservative Republicans feel on this issue. That is, in part, his own fault. When he ran in 2010 he spoke out against amnesty quite vehemently. Speaking in 2010 against Governor Charlie Crist, Rubio said, “He would have voted for the McCain plan. I think that plan is wrong, and the reason I think it’s wrong is that if you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do, in any form, whether it's back of the line or so forth, you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America.”

A few months later, during a CNN debate, Rubio answered the question of what a legal system of immigration would look like, “And then you'll have a legal immigration system that works. And you'll have people in this country that are without documents that will be able to return to the -- will be able to leave this country, return to their homeland, and try to re-enter through our system that now functions, a system that makes sense…Earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.”

This clearly differs from what Rubio is saying now. Is this surprising? No. Somehow, Americans always seem to be shocked when our lawmakers turn out to be more moderate or sensible than the candidate we voted in. Rubio swung to the right in 2010 and has worked his way back to the center on the issue of immigration. That’s not a betrayal. For Rubio, being loyal to the Republican party means pushing it forward, whether it wants to go there or not. Rubio seems more aware than most of the actual cost Republicans past stance on immigration has had on the party. 

Rubio came out in front of many other leaders in either party on the issue of immigration reform. He issued a series of proposals and has been unafraid of taking on anyone, Democratic or Republican on the issue. Immigration reform will happen, if it doesn’t happen on May 9, it will happen soon after. When it does, Marco Rubio will be seen as a leader on the issue. People won’t forget that and ahead of 2016, the most important thing Rubio can do is distinguish himself from everyone around him. Despite some Tea Party protests at his local Congressional office, Rubio just isn't afraid of them. Nor should he be. When immigration reform is all set and done, Rubio will have won over more voters than he has lost. 

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Andrea Ayres-Deets

PM Politics Intern- M.A. in Writing from the University of Warwick. Lover of sci-fi, awkward situations, and coffee.

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