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Marco Rubio retreats on immigration

Sen. Marco Rubio is calling for a new crackdown on border security and undocumented workers before he'll even entertain legalization.
Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-FL), right, listens to a speaker at the fourth annual \"Faith and Freedom BBQ\" in Anderson, S.C., on Aug. 25, 2014.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, after championing immigration reform last year, is drifting away from backing legal status for undocumented immigrants. 

Earlier this week, Rubio berated a group of DREAMers who protested an appearance in South Carolina over Rubio's support for a ending a program that grants them temporary protection from deportation.

“We are a sovereign country that deserves to have immigration laws,” Rubio said, according to CNN. “You’re doing harm to your own cause because you don’t have a right to illegally immigrate to the United States.”

In an interview with Breitbart, Rubio said Republicans should consider demanding an end to any further moves by President Obama to protect migrants from deportation as a precondition to funding the government, which could set the stage for another shutdown standoff. The Senator accurately predicted last year that President Obama would look to unilateral action to reduce deportations if immigration legislation died in Congress, a step the White House is now considering amid pressure from Latino groups.

“There will have to be some sort of a budget vote or a Continuing Resolution vote, so I assume there will be some sort of a vote on this,” Rubio told Breitbart. “I’m interested to see what kinds of ideas my colleagues have about using funding mechanisms to address this issue."

Rubio has struggled to deal with his immigration position as his party has gradually abandoned its post-2012 election interest in reform and instead returned to a consensus position of maximizing deportations rather than exploring legal relief for undocumented immigrants of any kind. His early strong support for comprehensive immigration reform, which became a dirty word among House Republicans almost immediately after Rubio's bill passed, could be a significant vulnerability if his rivals were to focus their fire on it in a presidential campaign.

The situation has been exacerbated in recent months by an influx of Central American minors, a development that Republicans blamed on lax immigration enforcement policies. The White House has requested new funding to reinforce the border and process removals more quickly, but the House and Senate have yet to agree on legislation to do so. 

In an interview with The Washington Examiner's Byron York published on Wednesday, the Florida lawmaker and potential 2016 presidential candidate said he no longer believed immigration reform was possible along the lines he envisioned last year when he co-authored bipartisan comprehensive legislation. Instead, Rubio said Republicans should retreat to passing more border security measures, crackdown on undocumented workers, and make changes to the legal immigration system and only return to the issue of what to do with an estimated 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants later.

"Once that's in place, and people see that it is working and is actually being applied ... then I think people would be willing to have a serious and responsible conversation about how to address the millions of people who are here illegally, who have been here for a long period of time," Rubio said. "But they're not willing to do that until they know that the illegal immigration problem is under control."

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, another co-sponsor of the Senate bill, took a similar position this week, arguing that Congress and the White House need to achieve 90% effective control of the border before there will be political support for legalization measures. 

Immigration activists have no tolerance for legislation that doesn't include a legalization component, especially if legalization is tied to a vague sense the border is secure, as Rubio suggests, and not concrete steps. They have reason to be skeptical: Congress has repeatedly doubled the size of the border patrol over the last 20 years and the Senate bill would have done so yet again, bumping the number of agents to almost 40,000 while implementing new technology as well. On the other side, House Republicans have yet to show that they'll support legalization under any circumstances whatsoever, which many conservative lawmakers claim is an unacceptable "amnesty" and dismiss out of hand.