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Lingering Question: What's Really Up With Marco Rubio and the DREAM Act

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Marco RubioWhat’s up with Marco Rubio?

The senator from Florida has a newfound interest in protecting immigrant youth, and it has raised both some eyebrows and many questions.

Famously among immigrant rights activists, Marco Rubio has been known as the Hispanic politician who is way out of touch with the Hispanic community. He’s catered to his tea party base and has been frustratingly bad on all things related to immigration reform, despite representing a state that has the nation’s third-largest concentration of undocumented immigrants.

Unlike other Cuban-American politicians from Florida (like former Sen. Mel Martinez, former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart an U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), Marco Rubio has voiced opposition to the DREAM Act. “It’s the wrong way to do the right thing,” he said, and claimed that it would “reward or encourage illegal immigration by granting amnesty.”

Ah, amnesty! The buzz word of the hard-core anti-immigrant types.

Opposition to the DREAM Act is way out of touch with 70% of all Americans and the 85% of Latinos who approve of the DREAM Act. Remember: Mitt Romney caused a major stir when he vowed to veto the DREAM Act back in January when he was campaigning in Iowa.

But maybe something has changed. The Senator has been shopping around some ideas for his version of a DREAM-type Act. The details are vague and there’s nothing on paper yet. But, Rubio apparently thinks could appeal to both conservatives and liberals, though in reality, it is thought to be far too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals. And, let’s be real here: The conservative anti-immigrant types (think Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas) are going to be the bigger problem for Rubio.

The move, coming from this fresh-faced, tea-party-backed, up-and-coming, possible veep from Florida is increasingly viewed as gutsy. Yeah, gutsy.

In Rubio’s version, popularly known as DREAM Act lite, certain eligible undocumented youth would be allowed to gain legal permanent residency in this country, but with no path to citizenship.  The Senator – unlike many of his colleagues from the GOP — clearly understands the importance of the Latino vote, and that tackling the DREAM Act, given it’s popularity, may be the safest way to go. And while he’s at it, he’s calling to task both Democrats and Republicans. And he’s courting members from across the aisle pretty heavily. From Scott Wong’s piece in Politico

The meeting with Gutierrez and top Hispanic Democrats was one of many stops on a Rubio charm offensive as the Florida Republican has engaged in a behind-the-scenes lobbying blitz to sell his proposal that would help children of illegal immigrants gain a more-permanent legal status.

Rubio is working an odd-bedfellows coalition, ranging from hard-line anti-illegal immigration groups like Numbers USA to progressive leaders in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And as he meets with Democrats, he is actively moving to head off a conservative rebellion, trying to curry support from the influential Heritage Foundation, religious leaders like Richard Land and tea party favorites like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jim DeMint  of South Carolina, and Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

Steve King? We’ll believe that when we see it.

In expected fashion, it is members from the Grand Ole Party who are giving Rubio and his idea the much abhorred Congressional cold shoulder. Ironically, it’s Republicans who have the most to lose — in the way of Latino votes — from standing again against legislation that would provide relief to undocumented kids. The Washington Post notes

So far, other Republicans are keeping their distance from Mr. Rubio’s proposal, and the most Mr. Romney has managed is a tepid we’ll-think-about-it. Political calculation may push him further. Republican strategists worry that GOP bills designed to hound illegal immigrants in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere are tilting Hispanics to President Obama in several Western swing states. Mr. Romney himself said as much the other day, fretting that the president’s support among Hispanic voters “spells doom for us.”

And Republicans only have themselves to blame for it. While Rubio’s DREAM Act Lite is certainly not the solution, this tea-party darling is showing that he has an understanding of Latino voters that his party doesn’t have. Our own Frank Sharry explained his mixed feelings to Politico, and outlined the conundrum for both politicial parties:

At first, Sharry dismissed Rubio’s plan as an election-year ploy designed to help Romney with Hispanic voters, but he now concludes that the senator is being both “brave and strategic.”

“If Republicans can’t support his right-leaning approach to the DREAM Act, then they can kiss the Latino vote — and their chances of seeing the inside of the White House — goodbye for a generation,” Sharry said. “If Democrats refuse to work with him then they open themselves up to accusations of favoring partisan politics over bipartisan legislative progress.”