Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has worked hard to resurrect himself from his near-political death experience after the failure of the Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill, publicly distancing himself from the same compromise he helped put together.
But a look back at the entirety of his record on the issue shows that Rubio has held numerous contradicting positions on immigration that date long before his role in the “Gang of Eight.”
In a Republican presidential primary where the two leading candidates, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, have surged in part because of their aggressive opposition to immigration reform, Rubio is continuously trying to make up for his role in the Senate’s failed bill.
While most in the Republican field have changed their positions on immigration during the course of the campaign by moving farther to the right, Rubio has re-positioned himself at different stages of his political career.
He’s been attacked by his opponents repeatedly on his changes in posture, including in a new ad by Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush. It’s part of a multi-million dollar ad buy running in early primary states.
His long and complicated history and immigration dates back to his early days in public office.
The Florida Legislature
During his time in the Florida legislature, Rubio was more amenable to immigrant-friendly legislation - especially at the beginning of his tenure.
In 2003 he was co-sponsor of a version of the DREAM Act, legislation that allows children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state prices for college. It’s legislation that is commonly decried by conservatives.
Speaker of the Florida House
When Rubio became speaker in 2006, proponents of immigration reform believed they would have a good chance of passing immigrant-friendly laws. Rubio was one of a handful of members from Miami who represented immigrant-heavy districts and were considered sensitive to advocates’ causes.
As Speaker, Rubio “straddled that issue,” said Juan Zapata, who served in the Florida House with Rubio and is supporting Jeb Bush.
Rubio no longer co-sponsored the DREAM Act, but he can also be credited with stalling legislation opposed by immigration advocates.
After Congress tried and failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, legislators introduced a series of bills that would have cracked down on enforcement and made it more difficult for undocumented workers to work – bills backed by many Republicans and opponents to illegal immigration.
Rubio, who singularly controlled what legislation was brought up for debate, refused to let the measures progress.
Don Brown, who was a member of the House legislature at the time, sponsored several of the bills. He said he was told that the proposals would never go anywhere.
“We had quite a number of members in the Republican caucus that were from the Miami area and they were very sensitive about the issue,” Brown said.
But during his run for Senate, Rubio took a hard right turn on immigration.
Rubio’s Senate Race in 2010
In 2010, when Rubio ran for Senate in a three-way race against former governor Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek, Rubio took a less nuanced view on immigration issues. As the insurgent, Tea Party-backed candidate, he took a much more hardline stance.
Anti-illegal immigration activists were skeptical about the Republican candidate. They attended his campaign events to question him in an attempt to nail down where he stood, eventually prompting Rubio to agree to a meeting.
Jack Oliver, a board member of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, attended the meeting, which included three other board members of the organization along with two Tea Party activists. Oliver recounts that Rubio “vowed to never support the legalization of anyone who was here in the country illegally.”
“He got up after telling us that and he looked each of us in the eye … and shook our hands,” Oliver said.
At that time, Oliver said he and his organization believed they found a champion in Rubio. On the campaign trail, the candidate maintained that vow, saying he opposed legalization.
“You can’t grant amnesty either because if you do, you will destroy any hope of having a legal immigration system that works. You will send a message that all you have to do is come into this country, stay here long enough and we will let you stay,” Rubio said at a campaign stop during that Senate race, according to the Miami Herald.
During a debate, he said that an “earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.”
And he also came out against the DREAM Act.
“It’s … not the right approach to that issue. In fact, it makes having a legal immigration system that works harder to accomplish,” Rubio said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Zapata, the sponsor of the DREAM Act bill that Rubio originally co-sponsored, suggested that the Florida senator’s changing positions were motivated by a long-held political ambition.
“It’s been interesting how his position started leaning in a certain direction,” Zapata said.
The Senate’s Gang Of Eight
Rubio continued to oppose any sort of legalization for the first two years of his Senate term.
In an interview on Fox Latino in April of 2012, Rubio said, “I don’t support amnesty. I don’t support something that undermines legal immigration.”
In that interview, when asked about the Senate’s plan to once again attempt comprehensive immigration reform, Rubio said, “I’m not going to do something that doesn’t pass and sets us back like the ‘07 debate.”
But just months later, Rubio helped to pass a similar bill to the one he disparaged. He became a member of the “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators who lead the fight and eventually helped pass comprehensive reform that included a path to citizenship.
Conservatives were vehemently opposed to the bill and and felt betrayed by Rubio.
“He lied to us first and he went around and repeated that lie from the panhandle to the keys. That’s why he got elected,” Oliver said of his 2010 promise. “That really angered me. I wasn’t raised that way. He didn’t keep his word.”
After the Gang of Eight bill stalled in the House and Rubio lost the trust of many conservatives, he immediately began moving away from the legislation that he helped pass.
The Presidential Campaign
As much political capital as Rubio spent on passing comprehensive immigration reform, he has spent as much time and energy trying to rectify his past. His explanations for his past stances often don’t shed much light on the specifics of his position.
Instead of drawing attention to the legalization component of reform, Rubio focuses on security. He says the border must be secure and that current laws must be enforced before the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. can be addressed. Nothing can be done until “illegal immigration is under control,” Rubio has said.
While he doesn’t often say it, he still supports a path to citizenship. In June when he was asked if he supported a path to citizenship, he said, “I do.” And in an interview on Hannity on Fox News in September, Rubio said he supports citizenship at the end of a long, complicated process that could take an immigrant more than ten years to navigate.
Instead of being specific when he does talk about the 11 million undocumented immigrants, Rubio uses a loaded term that appeals to many in the Republican base. He recently started saying on the campaign trail that he’s “not going to support amnesty,” like he did at a Burlington, Iowa town hall Monday.
Asked to clarify, Rubio’s spokesperson Alex Conant confirmed that Rubio still does back a path to citizenship.
Should Rubio win the Republican nomination and have to appeal to a broader voter base, it’s unclear what position he’ll take.