Sen. Marco Rubio has changed his tune on immigration in advance of a potential 2016 presidential run, though it may not be sufficient yet to win over conservatives.
Rubio championed a Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed last year, but in recent letters to President Barack Obama and four recent media interviews, he clearly now favors additional action to secure the border even before any discussion of the legal status of undocumented immigrants.
Even as the Senate bill was moving forward in spring 2013, supporting the measure was a dicey move. Rubio was pictured on the cover of the conservative National Review laughing beside liberal Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.
The headline was “Rubio’s Folly.”
In June 2013, after passage of the bill, Rubio began his plunge in presidential primary polls, remaining in the single digits ever since.
Rubio was a runner-up in the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, falling to 7th place this year — with only 6 percent.
In October, Rubio began signaling a reposition on his immigration stance, coming out against a proposed conference committee to resolve the bill — the one he supported — with a House version.
Rubio pivoted even further this week.
“I continue to believe our system needs to be reformed and I’ve learned in the last year that (there is) an incredible distrust of the federal government no matter who’s in charge,” Rubio told conservative website Breitbart. “The only way you’re going to be able to deal with this issue is by first securing the border and ensuring that illegal immigration is under control.”
Dan Holler, a representative for Heritage Action, a group opposing the Senate bill, called Rubio’s latest comments “encouraging.”
“What Senator Rubio outlined over the course of this week really aligns with where conservatives tried to take the debate,” Holler added.
Past support for the Senate bill, including a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, still sours Rubio to some conservatives.
“Certainly we’re pleased with…any pro-amnesty person who says ‘no amnesty,’ and so we welcome him as an ally on that,” Numbers USA executive director Roy Beck said to Peter Sullivan of the Hill. Numbers USA seeks to limit immigration.
“It’s hard not to feel pretty irritated with him for being the guy that really caused the Senate to pass that bill,” Beck said. “I mean he was the main guy.”
Rubio still supports ultimately finding a solution for undocumented immigrants, but there is an “incredible distrust of the federal government.” People first need to know the border is secure and the system for legal immigration has been reformed.
“They don’t want to hear about how it’s going to happen—they want to see it happen,” Rubio told Breitbart.
On Rubio’s Senate website, from April 2013: “The security triggers are not left at the discretion of politicians with agendas. Real measurable results must be achieved, and politicians cannot override them.”
Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant told The Hill that what has changed is Rubio’s strategy for reaching immigration reform, not his policies.
“We’re not talking about policy changes,” Conant said. “We’re talking about a more realistic way of achieving policy wins.”