Oriales García Rubio knows how it feels to want more. When she was a girl in central Cuba in the 1930s, her family of nine lived in a one-room house with a dirt floor. Her dolls were Coke bottles dressed in rags. She dreamed of becoming an actress. Instead she married a security guard, moved with him to the U.S. and found work as a hotel maid. Her husband got a job as a bartender while starting a series of failed businesses—a vegetable stand, a dry cleaner, a grocery. They never had much. But their house had a real floor. Their daughters had real dolls. They sent all four of their children to college to chase their own dreams.
That’s why on the morning of Dec. 21, she called her youngest son, Marco Antonio Rubio, the 41-year-old Senator from Florida and great Hispanic hope of the Republican Party—or, as she calls him, Tony. She got his voice mail. “Tony, some loving advice from the person who cares for you most in the world,” she said in Spanish. “Don’t mess with the immigrants, my son. Please, don’t mess with them.” She reminded him that undocumented Americans—los pobrecitos, she called them, the poor things—work hard and get treated horribly. “They’re human beings just like us, and they came for the same reasons we came. To work. To improve their lives. So please, don’t mess with them.”
(PHOTOS: Marco Rubio, Republican Savior)
Rubio comes from a family of immigrants and married into another family of immigrants and lives in a neighborhood of immigrants, West Miami, the bilingual bedroom community where he came of age and began his dazzling ascent from city commissioner to state house speaker to U.S. Senator. Now, just two years after he arrived in Washington, the charismatic conservative often hailed as the Tea Party’s answer to Barack Obama has emerged as the most influential voice in the national debate over immigration reform. He’s also the key player in his party’s efforts to make up to Hispanic voters after a disastrous 2012 campaign featuring Republican candidates who proposed electric fences and alligators along the southern border, as well as Mitt Romney’s suggestion of “self-deportation” for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. GOP leaders know they have a demographic problem. They hope Rubio can help provide the solution, which is why they’ve chosen him to deliver the response to Obama’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12—in English and Spanish.
But while Rubio is a child of immigrants, he’s also a child of the conservative movement, an ambitious ideologue and former political operative who speaks partisan Republican with the fluency of a native. (Romney, by contrast, spoke it as a second language.) Like Paul Ryan, a potential 2016 rival, he’s part of a new generation of lean and hungry conservatives who grew up in the antigovernment Reagan era and entered politics after the scorched-earth Gingrich revolution. Bipartisan compromise is not usually his thing.
So he’s navigating a borderland of his own. He has endorsed a path to citizenship that he once derided as “code for amnesty,” risking a backlash from many loyal supporters who see los pobrecitos as freeloaders. But he has also pushed to make that path more arduous, demanding much tougher enforcement first, insisting he won’t get into a who-can-be-nicest bidding war with Obama and pledging to walk away from reform if the final legislation doesn’t reflect conservative principles. In an hour-long Feb. 1 interview with TIME, he emphasized that the undocumented have no right to stay in the U.S., vowed to oppose any bill that rewards them for breaking the law and defended the motives of hard-line “shamnesty” critics who say illegal immigrants are taking taxpayers for a ride. “Someone’s violated the law, and they’re receiving taxpayer benefits? That’s a legitimate reason to be upset,” Rubio says.
It’s a thin, hard line to walk: between the Republican establishment and the base, between compassion and the rule of law, between family and politics. And Rubio is walking it on an issue no politician has cracked in nearly two decades while testing the support of the grassroots Tea Party conservatives he will need if he seeks the White House in 2016. So far, though, he seems to be succeeding. After helping to craft bipartisan reforms in the Senate, he has served as their chief spokesman on right-wing radio and Fox News, getting remarkably sympathetic hearings from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other talkers whose antiamnesty crusades helped kill similar efforts in the George W. Bush era. Almost all of them have praised his courage—Limbaugh called his work “admirable,” like a Pope granting absolution—and the backlash has yet to materialize. “I don’t know anyone else who could have broken through the conservative sound barrier on immigration,” says American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas, a Miami lawyer who gave Rubio his first job as an attorney. “Marco can do left brain, so you get the logic, and he can do right brain, so you feel it in your heart and soul.”
This is Rubio’s first leadership audition, his chance to show Republicans that he’s more than a compelling speaker with boyish good looks, that he’s not just geographically, demographically and ideologically correct. Immigration, he says, is tricky. Though he has evolved on the issue—flip-flopped, if you prefer—he says he’s still not sure he’s got it exactly right. The word he uses most is balance. That was his first thought after he played that voice mail from his mother on his iPhone.
“I have to balance that humanity with reality,” he says. “We have immigration laws. They have to be followed. But yeah, she reminded me that there’s a human element to this as well. As a policymaker, you have to strike a balance.” The result will shape the future of the nation and the dreams of millions of immigrants, not to mention the fate of the GOP and the ambitions of Marco Rubio.
In his autobiography, An American Son, Rubio says his closest boyhood friend was his cigar-smoking, Fidel Castro–hating grandfather, Pedro Víctor García, a proud Cuban exile who taught him to believe in Reagan, American exceptionalism and himself. Hobbled by childhood polio, more book-smart than business-savvy, Papa never achieved much material success. But he spent hours with his grandson reading Spanish-language newspapers, fulminating about communism and pushing the future Senator to expand his horizons beyond football. “He would scold me for performing poorly in school, but he never let me believe I was incapable of being successful,” Rubio wrote. “His dreams for us were his legacy.”
In another book, The Rise of Marco Rubio, the journalist Manuel Roig-Franzia reveals that Papa was also, for a time, an undocumented immigrant. After fleeing Cuba in 1962, he was detained at the Miami airport and later ordered deported. But he was never sent home, and eventually he qualified for residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which still ensures Cuban refugees special treatment in the U.S. Rubio says he never knew his grandfather had lived in the U.S. illegally. But he told TIME that Papa’s situation illustrated the moral quandaries surrounding immigration, which he wrestles with today.
“He didn’t have a legal right to be here, but America wasn’t going to deport an elderly man to a communist dictatorship,” Rubio says. “It equates to these kids who were brought here when they were 5 or 6 and have no memory of the country where they were born. America is a compassionate country that says, ‘Let’s help these folks.’ But you have to do it in a way that doesn’t encourage people to bring their kids in the future, so they can get the same benefit. It’s complicated.”
Rubio’s journey on the issue has been complicated too. As a state legislator from the overwhelmingly Hispanic community of West Miami, he supported legislation that would allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition. After being selected as house speaker in 2005, he scuttled several Republican efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants. The obscure book he published laying out his agenda, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future, included three ideas for preventing identity theft and zero about immigration.
But when he announced his underdog campaign for the Senate in 2010, Rubio became a hard-liner. He attacked then governor Charlie Crist’s support for reform as Obama-friendly liberal amnesty and opposed the Dream Act, which would have given legal status to those sympathetic immigrants brought here as kids. He started out 30 points behind, with the GOP establishment lined up behind the moderate Crist. While immigration wasn’t the big issue in the primary—Crist had embraced the Obama stimulus and even literally embraced Obama at a stimulus rally—it helped convince the party’s base of older, exurban Tea Partyers that the hip-hop-loving Cuban American was one of them. Crist was forced to quit the party to run as an independent. Rubio still buried him in the GOP midterm landslide and captured more than half the Hispanic vote.
In 2012, Rubio edged back toward compassion, proposing a scaled-back Dream Act. But before he could introduce a bill, the Obama Administration stole his thunder by unilaterally granting temporary legal status to the so-called Dreamers. That helped revive enthusiasm for Obama among Hispanics annoyed by the Administration’s record number of deportations. Romney ended up with a meager 27% of the Hispanic vote; had he matched Bush’s 40% share, he might be President today. His thrashing persuaded many Republican elites that as long as they’re perceived as unsympathetic obstacles to fixing a dysfunctional immigration system, the fastest-growing sector of the electorate won’t listen to anything they say.
Rubio is careful not to oversell immigration reform’s potential to revive the GOP brand: “If anyone is under the illusion that suddenly our percentage of Hispanic voters will double, let me dissuade them of that right now.” But he says many Hispanic Americans are forming their political identity in an era of Big Government and won’t even consider Republican arguments against it. “They’ve bought into the lie the left is putting out there that because we want to enforce immigration laws, we’re not welcoming,” he says. “It’s not true. It’s not fair. But it is what it is.” It’s no accident that Cubans, who enjoy more lenient rules than other immigrants, are more receptive to the GOP—or that non-Cuban Hispanics don’t always consider a Cuban-American politician one of them.
Now he wants to reform the system for all immigrants, and his impeccably nuanced positions have become the core of the Senate plan. He agrees that there is no way to round up and deport 11 million people living in the shadows, but he worries that excessive generosity could end up attracting 11 million more. So he backs a path to citizenship—the current situation, he says, amounts to “de facto amnesty”—but only if the borders are secure and an employment-verification system is in place first, and then only if it isn’t quicker or easier than the path for applicants who play by the rules. And while he is willing to grant probationary legal status to undocumented immigrants who register and pay fines, he insists they go to the back of the line for green cards and refuses to allow them to collect food stamps or other federal benefits.
Obama has announced similar principles, but Rubio has still blasted him for soft-pedaling the need to step up enforcement, among other issues. Some of this is Beltway theater; reform could become toxic for Republicans if it’s perceived as Obama-friendly. But there also will be very real differences over details involving guest farmworkers, high-skilled immigrants, same-sex couples and the path to citizenship itself. It’s a lot easier to agree that wait times should be reasonable or that the border should be secure than to draft legislation determining what those things mean. This shrewd political operator will have to decide how far he’s willing to bend to get a deal done with Obama or whether he’s content just to get credit for trying.
How It Is
Rubio still teaches a class at Florida International University, and one recent morning he was telling his students—almost all Hispanic immigrants or children of immigrants—how politics really works. His topic was the Florida House of Representatives, and he didn’t need notes to explain why the legislative body he once led is so partisan and polarized. “If you know the only way to lose your seat is to get out-conservatived in a primary, you’ll never let anyone get to your right,” Rubio said. He’s clearly a political animal. “I’m not telling you this is how it should be,” he said with a grin. “But it’s how it is. This isn’t a good-government class. This is a politics class.”
Rubio’s detractors, and even some admirers, suggest that his career so far has been less about good government than politics and self-promotion. His autobiography recounts virtually no substantive achievements beyond a hometown tree-planting project. In the class, he devoted much of his time to recounting the machinations that persuaded his colleagues to elect him speaker: “You raise money for them. You befriend them. You make sure your kids are friends with their kids. And then you cut the best deal you can.” He didn’t mention that the deal he reportedly cut to secure North Florida support for his candidacy revised funding formulas at the expense of his South Florida constituents.
“Marco Rubio’s going to do whatever’s good for Marco Rubio,” says former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, a Democratic rival in Florida’s rough-and-tumble exile politics.
Given his previous wobbles on immigration, there’s a broad consensus that political calculations will help drive Rubio’s position on reform but no consensus about where. He has continued to toe the Tea Party line on everything else—opposing the fiscal-cliff deal, refusing to raise the debt ceiling, describing Obamacare as economic suicide—so perhaps immigration gives him a chance to prove he can work across the aisle, get something big done and help save his party. But he could also cement his status as a conservative stalwart by rejecting a deal, especially if he manages to dump the blame on Obama.
There’s even a case to be made that Rubio might be a likelier Republican nominee in 2016 if his lily-white party hasn’t addressed its policy problems with Hispanics. What’s not in doubt is his influence. The legislation’s fate in the Republican-controlled House as well as the Senate may depend on Rubio’s blessing. GOP elites often follow his lead on Hispanic issues; the party’s presidential candidates all boycotted a proposed Univision debate after he got into a spat with the network, and Ryan endorsed his immigration principles the day he announced them.
To hear Rubio talk, reform is certainly not a done deal, as the bipartisanship-loving media have suggested in recent weeks. It’s hard to move massive legislation, and he predicted that Obama will try to drag the package to the left in ways he and House Republicans can’t accept. He pushes back at my suggestion that everyone will have to make concessions. “The right has already made concessions,” he replies. “I’m not sure how much further we can go.” Maybe he is just negotiating, but he doesn’t sound overly optimistic—or overly eager—about a White House ceremony with Obama. “I’m not trying to throw cold water on the effort,” he says. “It’s a good effort, an important effort. But we have to be realistic about the pitfalls that lie ahead. This is a very difficult problem that the country hasn’t solved in over two decades.”
It won’t be easy for Rubio to thread the needle between a mother who doesn’t want him to mess with the immigrants and supporters who want him to do just that. For most of his colleagues, immigration is just another Washington policy issue. For Rubio, it follows him everywhere he goes—to the bakery, in the classroom, at home. But if he can put a conservative Republican face on reform while continuing to charm the anger-mongers of the airwaves, there will be lots of speculation about a first Hispanic President. “It’s the most difficult issue he’s dealt with, personally and politically,” says his senior political adviser Todd Harris. “But at the end of the day, he’s following his heart. I don’t think Marco could look himself in the mirror if he didn’t give everything he had to try to solve this.”
Rubio says he has no idea what he’ll do in 2016—run for re-election, “run for something else” or return to the private sector. Some insiders remain dubious that he’ll seek the “something else” route so early in his career. He’s had some awkward personal-finance issues. One of his closest friends and allies, former Congressman David Rivera, is embroiled in a corruption scandal. And his political mentor, Jeb Bush, might seek the White House himself. Their friends assume Rubio would defer in that case, though it was curious that when I asked him whether he had discussed his immigration work with Bush, who has a book coming out on the subject, he said he sent a text message.
For now, though, Rubio says he’s content to stay where he is and try to help los pobrecitos secure a better life for their kids, just as his parents did for him. If that ends up helping his career, well, his parents wanted him to chase his dreams. “I’ve always viewed politics the following way: if you do a good job at the job you’re doing, you’ll have opportunities to do other things in the future,” Rubio says. “Maybe things you never envisioned.”