MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Considered a rising star in the Republican party, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has raised his national profile with a series of major policy speeches on the economy and America’s role in the world.
One issue, however, that he doesn’t spend much time on is immigration.
The issue has garnered recent attention in the Republican presidential primary campaign because Texas Gov. Rick Perry supports in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, a position Rubio once supported.
Rubio will talk in generalities about immigration but as the charismatic 40-year-old lawmaker’s prominence grows, he will likely face more scrutiny on the issue. Despite his denials of interest, he is one of many Republicans who get mentioned as possible vice presidential nominees next year, and recently announced plans for a memoir.
“At the national level, he’s not going to get a pass as he did in his Senate election,” said Frank Sharry of the Washington, D.C. based pro-immigrant group, America’s Voice.
Sharry said Rubio’s views on immigration and on making English the official language “are going to be lifted up to the diverse immigrant communities in Florida and to the largely Mexican-American communities in the West.”
That is in part why talking about immigration is complicated for Rubio. He’s the darling of tea party conservatives and generally favors their position of securing the border first and dealing with the country’s more than 10 million illegal immigrants later. Republicans also are frank about the charismatic senator’s ability to attract Latinos to the GOP, a factor that could play a key role in swing states like Colorado, New Mexico and Florida next year. Still, the country’s mostly Mexican-American Latino voters tend to support immigration reform that covers both border security and a path to legalization for qualified illegal immigrants, rather than delaying the latter.
Meanwhile, even Florida’s influential Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, and its Cuban-American immigrants, who get special permission to remain in the U.S., tend to be more sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants than the general public. They are also more concerned about laws that require police to check suspects’ citizenship, fearing they will be the victims of racial profiling.
Rubio is still relatively unknown among Latinos outside Florida, and immigration is hardly the only issue they or the rest of the nation will judge him on.
Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says it’s natural for Latinos to look to Rubio for leadership on the issue.
“It’s not unreasonable for people to hope that individuals who are immigrants or children of immigrants and in policy-making positions would be sympathetic to the plight of immigrants,” he said. “It’s not just about when you talk, it’s about using your authority to help make the plight of those individuals better.”
During an interview last week at the National Ideas Forum in Washington, Rubio spoke cautiously about his previous co-sponsorship in the Florida House of in-state college tuition for qualified illegal immigrants.
Rubio said when the bill first came up, immigration “wasn’t a big issue.”
“As the years have gone on in the immigration issue has remain unresolved and in the minds of many gotten worse, and as the number of people in the country without documents grew from 8 million to 9 million to estimates of 11 million, it’s been harder and harder to find some of these solutions,” he said.
During the forum, he also expressed sympathy for high-achieving illegal immigrant students who were brought to the U.S. at a young age by their parents and grew up here, but he did not say what he would do for them.
Asked by The Associated Press in an email what Rubio would support for such students or whether he still supports in-state tuition, spokesman Alex Contant said the senator would not expand on his forum comments.
Miami political consultant Anna Navarro said she believes Rubio is simply being strategic politically about when he speaks on the issue, especially given there has been little will in the House or Senate to pass a bill.
“I don’t think he’s going to stand up on a box and give a policy speech on immigration when there’s absolutely no plan moving in Congress just for the sake of satisfying groups that want him to do it,” she said.
Rubio’s stance on immigration has gained notice in part because it deviates from that of many recent Florida GOP Hispanic leaders. His predecessor, former Sen. Mel Martinez, former U.S. Rep Lincoln Diaz-Balart and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Cuban-Americans, have led bipartisan efforts in favor of a comprehensive immigration bill.
Rubio did co-sponsor a bill this summer to increase the mandatory use of the government’s computerized E-Verify program. E-verify allows companies to check whether new hires are eligible to work in the U.S. His support for the bill came even as a coalition of agriculture, hospitality and other Florida industry leaders helped defeat a similar bill at the state level.
At the same time, he has refused to be interviewed about immigration by the nation’s largest Spanish-language network, Univision, whose audience tends to strongly support immigration reform. Univision averages about 4 million primetime viewers, compared to 1 million for its nearest competitor, Telemundo. Rubio has appeared on the equivalent programs for all the major English-language networks and Telemundo. The last time Rubio talked in-depth about immigration on Univision — and then only to a reporter with a local Miami station — was a few days after he took office last January.
Rubio’s decision not to be interviewed by Univision became part of the news last week when his staff publicly accused the network of pressuring the senator to appear on its top news talk show in exchange for it softening a story about the decades-old drug trafficking conviction of Rubio’s brother-in-law.
Univision denies the allegations.
That caused freshman U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a long-time Rubio ally and former Tallahassee roommate, to demand that the Republican presidential candidates boycott a proposed January debate on Univision. He threatened to “inform Hispanic voters, particularly Cuban-American voters, as to which presidential candidates chose to ignore our concerns and participate.” Five of the candidates then announced they would boycott.
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