Immigrant Son

Marco Rubio wants to sell the GOP on a path to citizenship for undocumented Americans. So why is his mom calling?

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Peter Hapak for TIME

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.

(MORE: Exclusive Interview: Marco Rubio Challenges His Own Party on Latino Outreach)

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.

(MORE: Will Immigration Reform Work This Time?)

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.”

MORE: Does Marco Rubio Want To Create Second-Class Citizens?

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