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

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.

(MORE: The Economics of Immigration: Who Wins, Who Loses and Why)

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.”

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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.”

MORE: Rubio Gives a Smart Speech, But Can He Go Off-Script on Foreign Policy?

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