There were unique political circumstances that opened the door to comprehensive immigration reform two years ago: both sides of the fight really could get what they wanted at the same time. Broadly speaking, Republicans wanted increased border security; Democrats wanted a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States; and each side could live with the other’s goal.
Eight U.S. senators – four Republicans and four Democrats – worked out the details and crafted a popular policy with broad support. One of them, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), saw it as a signature issue upon which to base a presidential campaign.
We now know, of course, that the process fell apart. House Republicans killed the bipartisan package and Rubio abandoned his own legislation.
This week, the far-right Floridian’s transformation on immigration policy reached its end point. Bloomberg Politics reported yesterday:
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has effectively ruled out granting lawful permanent residency to undocumented immigrants if he makes it to the White House, even for a second term.Pressed by conservative host Sean Hannity during a Monday night interview on Fox News, the Florida senator said he’s open to a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally, but only a decade or more after passage of bills to secure the border and modernize the legal immigration system.
The GOP senator specifically told the Fox News host that after officials “stop illegal immigration” and “modernize” the system, “then ultimately in 10 or 12 years you could have a broader debate about how has this worked out and should we allow some of them to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship.”
Let’s flesh this out because it’s arguably a turning point for the candidate who may very well become his party’s presidential nominee.
In 2013, Rubio backed a comprehensive solution: Republicans could get increased border security; Democrats could create a pathway to citizenship; and together, they’d overhaul and modernize the system.
In 2015, Rubio supports a policy in which Republicans get what they want, and in 2027, policymakers can begin to have a conversation about possibly considering what Democrats want.
Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant told Bloomberg Politics that Rubio’s “principles” on immigration reform “have not changed.”
I can’t speak to Alex Conant’s definition of “principles,” but I can say Rubio’s policy positions on immigration reform have changed. Indeed, they’ve changed quite dramatically. Under the far-right senator’s new vision, the debate over a pathway to citizenship wouldn’t even begin until after a Rubio presidency would have ended – even if he were to win two terms.
The partisan realities surrounding the issue are obviously causing Rubio to overhaul his entire vision. How does a senator who wrote an “amnesty” bill the Republican base abhors win a GOP primary? By pandering to hard-core conservatives and repudiating the same policies Rubio championed just two years ago.
But that’s more of an excuse than an explanation. In 2013, Rubio saw himself as a politician ready to lead on a major national issue. Two years later, he’s just another far-right follower. Rather than challenging his party’s base to embrace the best possible policy, the senator is telling the base what it wants to hear.
It’s a missed opportunity for real leadership.
Postscript: I saw some suggestions yesterday that a pathway to citizenship, even under the bipartisan reform package the Senate passed in 2013, wouldn’t have been a reality until the next decade. That’s true. But it’s still a vast improvement on the narrow vision Rubio is suddenly peddling – instead of citizenship opportunities in 2026, the Republican candidate is talking about initiating a debate in 2027 about whether to even consider citizenship opportunities.