Marco Rubio: The Rest of the Story

There was a lot of interesting feedback about my Marco Rubio cover story, most of it about stuff that wasn’t in the story. The writer responds.

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Senator Marco Rubio listens during a news conference on immigration reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, Jan. 28, 2013.

I’ve gotten a lot of interesting feedback about my Marco Rubio cover story, most of it about stuff that wasn’t in the story. I heard from “birthers” upset that I didn’t question Rubio’s eligibility for the presidency, which I guess proves that some kooks are capable of intellectual consistency. I heard from Florida Democrats upset that I didn’t delve into Rubio’s awkward history of personal finance; it just seemed small-bore to me, even his mini-scandal involving personal expenses on a political credit card. And some readers asked why I didn’t mention that back when Rubio was a hopeless Senate candidate polling 30 points behind then-Governor Charlie Crist, I wrote a story explaining why he was going to win anyway.

OK, OK, nobody really asked about that. I just enjoy bringing it up. But I did want to discuss two actual omissions from the Rubio profile in a bit more detail.

The most common complaint was that I didn’t say enough about Rubio’s right-wing views—his foreign-policy neoconservatism, his tax-policy ultraconservatism, his hard-line opposition to the Violence Against Women Act, the repeal of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, Obamacare, Wall Street reform, raising the debt ceiling, and so on. As a few readers pointed out, I had just written a column warning that Tea Party purism was dooming the Republican Party, yet here was a relatively sympathetic profile of a Tea Party purist. As a Florida resident and a clean-energy obsessive, doesn’t it bug me that my junior senator opposes climate action?

Well, yes. All I can say is that my story was about an issue where Rubio isn’t a purist, immigration, and the fascinating personal and political journey that has led him into the forefront of that issue. Rubio is the perfect front man for a party that believes its main problems are messaging and Hispanic outreach, a party that believes the only policies it needs to tweak are its immigration policies. I don’t believe that, but TIME has written a lot about the GOP, and so have I, here and here, here and (back in the day) here. This was a story about a really conservative Republican trying to thread a needle on a really important issue where he’s got a really compelling back story.

Speaking of that back story, some readers asked why I didn’t mention that Rubio used to suggest that his parents fled Fidel Castro before the excellent Manuel Roig-Franzia reported that they arrived in the US three years before Castro seized power in Cuba. Rubio says he still considered them exiles, because they couldn’t return to his home country, and I didn’t think a few occasional embellishments was that big a deal. But as Roig-Franzia pointed out in his biography, The Rise of Marco Rubio, Rubio did declare during his 2010 Senate campaign, when he was running as an immigration hard-liner, that he came from a family of exiles, not a family of immigrants. I do wish I could have delved into that—not only because, as I showed in my story, he actually comes from a classic family of immigrants who came to the U.S. to pursue a better life, but because his efforts to draw that distinction hint at some deeper tensions within Hispanic America.

Cubans, as I mentioned in the article, have their own set of extremely lenient immigration laws, the Cuban Adjustment Act and the bizarre “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy that qualifies them for permanent U.S. resident status just a year after they make landfall. Mexicans and Hondurans and Salvadorans get detained and deported—even though, as Rubio says, most of them come seeking the American dream of a better life, just as his parents did. So while Rubio is showing some political courage by supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a path that his Tea Party base considers amnesty, many non-Cuban Hispanics will resent his efforts to make that path as arduous as possible, and to make it contingent on strict enforcement mechanisms that don’t really apply to Cuban exiles.

When we talked, Rubio acknowledged that the Cuban Adjustment Act needs to be “reexamined” in light of lax travel policies that allow exiles who purportedly fled persecution return to the island once a month. Really, he sounded more upset about the lax travel policies than the lax immigration rules, but having a Cuban-American front man for reform could shine a spotlight on these contradictions. That doesn’t even factor in the cultural tensions stoked recently by the outrage entrepreneur Rush Limbaugh, who suggested that Cuban-Americans (who tend to vote Republican) are good hardworking immigrants while characterizing Mexicans and other Hispanic immigrants (who tend to vote Democratic) as freeloaders.

It is interesting that the two largest Hispanic groups in Florida, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, do not have much of a dog in the immigration hunt—Cubans because they get special treatment when they come to America, Puerto Ricans because they’re already Americans. In the article, Rubio discussed the question of how important immigration reform really is to Hispanics, warning that it won’t magically revive the Republican brand among the fastest-growing sector of the electorate. In fact, restrictionists are warning that a path to citizenship for the undocumented would just end up minting 11 million new Democrats—and as I’ll discuss later this week, there are experts who agree with that analysis in a surprising place.