Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is singing a new tune on immigration as he eyes a possible 2016 presidential run, but it may not be enough to win over disaffected conservatives just yet.
Rubio was a leading champion of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year. But in a letter to President Obama and a series of four media interviews this week, he made clear that he now favors additional measures to secure the border before there is even talk of a pathway to legal status for those in the country illegally.
After the bill passed in June of that year, Rubio plummeted in early presidential primary polls he once led and has remained in single digits. He was the runner-up in the 2013 straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, but fell to 7th place with just 6 percent this year.
In October he sent signals he was starting to reposition on immigration and came out against having a conference committee to reconcile the bill he supported with any House version.
But this week, Rubio pivoted even further.
“I continue to believe our system needs to be reformed and I’ve learned in the last year that because of such an incredible distrust of the federal government no matter who’s in charge, 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,” he told Breitbart, a conservative web site.
Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, which opposes the Senate bill, said Rubio’s recent comments were “encouraging.”
“What Senator Rubio outlined over the course of this week really aligns with where conservatives tried to take the debate,” he said.
His past support for the Senate bill, which included a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, still sours him to some.
“Certainly we’re pleased with…any pro-amnesty person who says ‘no amnesty,’ and so we welcome him as an ally on that,” said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, a group that seeks to reduce immigration.
Still, Beck added that “it’s hard not to feel pretty irritated with him for being the guy that really caused the Senate to pass that bill. I mean he was the main guy.”
Rubio says he still supports eventually finding a solution for dealing with people in the country illegally, but citing an “incredible distrust of the federal government,” he now says people first need to see that the border has been secured and the legal immigration system has been reformed.
“They don’t want to hear about how it’s going to happen—they want to see it happen,” he told Breitbart of those first two steps.
While the bill that passed the Senate combined these steps into one measure, it did have requirements to make sure that the border was secure before the path to legal status went forward. The bill required measures such as 700 miles of border fence, an employment verification system and additional border patrol agents to be in place before the legal status process could move forward.
A frequently asked questions page on Rubio’s website, from April 2013, states, “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 spokesman Alex Conant told The Hill that Rubio’s strategy for achieving immigration reform, not his policies, has changed.
“We're not talking about policy changes,” he said. “We're talking about a more realistic way of achieving policy wins.”
Liberal commentators have pointed to a speech Rubio gave in South Carolina, a key early primary state, on Monday, as evidence of a harsher tone.
Rubio was interrupted by “Dreamers,” young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children. The crowd booed the protesters, who were escorted out, and Rubio told them, “You’re doing harm to your own cause.”
It was a change from just two years ago, when Rubio asked the young protesters to stay at his speech to the Hispanic Leadership Network and called them “brave.”
Rubio told The Wall Street Journal this week the reason for the discrepancy is that he has been trying to address the problems the young immigrants are protesting and that “these groups don’t seem willing to give any consideration of that.”
Rubio’s letter to Obama last week did favorably cite “The ‘dreamers’ who graduated at the top of their class but face an uncertain future.”
“I would strongly disagree with this idea that he’s somehow unsympathetic to their plight,” Conant said.
But Rubio’s shifting positions on immigration could complicate his effort to win over Republican voters in 2016 primary.
“His strategy seems to be to avoid being put in a position to defend the Senate bill,” said Richard Quinn, a longtime Republican strategist in South Carolina, later adding the political adage, “When you’re having to explain something, you’re losing.”
Asked whether Rubio’s moves this week were to set him up for the Republican presidential primary, Conant said he would leave “political analysis” to others, but added: “The senator was well aware of the political risks of this issue when he took it on a year and a half ago. He remains committed to reform and makes no apologies.”