By Alexander Bolton - 06/24/12 05:37 PM EDT
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an important GOP liaison to Hispanic voters, said Sunday that Congress must strengthen border security and crack down on employers before considering a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
He stuck fast to his party's positions on immigration despite flirting earlier this year with a legislative proposal that would have stopped the deportation of immigrants who came to the United States at a young age.
“First you’ve got to win the confidence of the American people that the federal government is serious about enforcing our immigration laws. That’s why I think border security and e-verify are so important,” Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
He declined to say whether he could envision illegal immigrants gaining a path to citizenship without first returning to their home countries.
“The answer to that question depends on the environment in which it’s being answered,” he said. “In this current environment, the options that we have available today to deal with 12 million people is very limited because people are frustrated that our immigration laws are not being enforced.”
E-verify is a national database that allows employers to instantly check the immigration status of workers. Advocates who favor stricter curbs on illegal immigration argue that employers across the country should be required to check on their workers.
Rubio has emerged as the Senate Republican’s point person on immigration but his reluctance to discuss proposals to address the status of millions of illegal residents shows how far the Senate GOP has shifted in the past five years.
In 2007, Republican Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) worked with Democrats on a bill that would have granted provisional legal status to nearly all illegal immigrants in the country. Those who wanted permanent legal residence would have returned to their home countries to apply for green cards.
It is difficult to envision Republican lawmakers working with Democrats on such a comprehensive bill anytime soon.
Rubio declined to criticize the controversial Arizona law requiring law enforcement to check the immigration status of suspected illegal aliens during stops, which the Supreme Court is due to rule on soon.
“Arizona has an all-out border problem there that’s not just about immigration, it’s about security,” he said.
“Arizona has a right to pass that bill, I understand why they did it,” he added.
But he said it should not be a model for the country.
“I don’t think other states should follow suit. For example, I don’t want to see a law like that in Florida.”
He reiterated his opposition to the DREAM Act, which would grant legal residency and provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age and meet certain requirements.
“Meet the Press” host David Gregory challenged Rubio about supporting Mitt Romney, who has discussed self-deportation as a potential solution to illegal immigrants in the United States, and asked about the political difficulties the issue presents to the GOP.
Rubio said the DREAM Act is overly broad and defended his handling of alternative Republican legislation. Rubio decided to hold the bill back after President Obama announced an executive order halting the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to the nation as kids and adolescents and are on track to becoming productive citizens.
“We have developed the idea in enough detail that people knew what was in it,” he said. “When I first announced the idea, immediately Democrats on the left criticized me, the same people who are now applauding the president for doing something similar. So that exposes the hypocrisy behind it.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), a Democratic leader on immigration reform, said as many as 95 percent of Democrats might have supported Rubio's bill, depending on its details.
Rubio disputed that his party is anti-immigration, stating the “overwhelming majority of Republicans are supporters of legal immigration” and are “compassionate of the plight” of illegal immigrants.
Some experts on Hispanic politics say Rubio’s support of mainstream GOP policy and talking points on immigration will limit his ability to persuade Hispanic voters to back Romney.
“He doesn’t sell as well outside of Florida as in Florida,” said Manuel Pastor, professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, discussing Rubio’ appeal among Hispanic voters.
“Partly it’s because of his approach on immigration, his approach on immigration leans more toward restriction than other Hispanic politicians.”
Romney said last week that Rubio is being “thoroughly vetted” as a possible vice presidential candidate.