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Rubio and Immigration: Whose Team Is He On?

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When it comes to immigration reform, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has a problem. In Spanish we’d say “quiere quedar bien con Dios y con el Diablo”—he wants to get along with God and the Devil. In other words, he’s trying to have it both ways.

This past weekend, Rubio responded to news that labor and business representatives had reached an agreement on a guest-worker program (part of the reform bill currently being negotiated by the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight,” of which Rubio is a member) by calling the reports of an agreement “premature.”

In fairness, legislation often has a mind of its own, and even compromises that seem set in stone can turn to dust at any moment.

But there are two key points in the letter Rubio sent to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). First, Rubio’s letter doesn’t acknowledge that an agreement—even if it’s only in principle—removes one of the main obstacles to the progress of immigration reform. It’s yet another demonstration of how much recent changes to the political landscape of the issue have improved the odds of reform.

Secondly, Rubio’s statement is clearly written to appeal to the far-right wing of the Republican Party in the Senate—members of which, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, had just sent their own letter to Sen. Leahy complaining that reform is moving forward too quickly.

This point is important because Sessions and his colleagues aren’t complaining that they need to hold more hearings to debate and consider the issue of reform. Their sole intention is to delay the process in the hope that they can eventually derail it. The committee could have a thousand hearings and at the end of them Senator Sessions and his allies would still vote against immigration reform. They want, quite simply, to kill the bill.

This is why Rubio’s attempt to appeal to anti-immigrant right-wingers is so worrisome: with his recent embrace of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, he’s also trying to appeal to the Latino voters his party so desperately needs. And if, as is widely speculated, he runs for and wins the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he’ll be the one who needs those Latino votes himself.

Here we have Rubio trying to squeeze between a rock and a hard place: reaching out to the right-wing conservatives he’ll need to win the Republican nomination in 2016 with one hand, and the Latinos he’ll need (if he wins that nomination) to compete effectively for the White House with the other. But he can’t actually hold two positions at the same time. If he seriously wants to win the White House in 2016, he has to know that he (or any Republican) will need at least 40% of the Latino vote to do it—and that a substantial bloc of those Latino voters will vote for a Republican only if the party does the right thing and supports immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. The party can’t get the Latino votes they need by derailing reform and trying to pass off the blame.

The lessons of the 2012 presidential elections are still fresh in our minds, and should be fresh in Rubio’s: appealing to right-wingers and opposing immigration reform is not a winning strategy for any Republican who wants to grow his party’s base to compete with Democrats. On the other hand, a shared bipartisan victory on immigration would win Republicans Latino votes and help them win the White House in the future. Republicans don’t need to win a majority of Latino voters to compete effectively with Democrats, but they do need a significant percentage—certainly more than the 23% Mitt Romney got in 2012. They can’t get that while alienating Latino voters on immigration, a defining issue that determines which candidates they’re willing to consider.

According to a recent Latino Decisions poll, 44% of Latinos say they would be more likely to vote Republican if the party showed leadership and put effort into passing immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. The same poll found that 64% of Latino voters blame Republicans for the failure of immigration reform in recent years—and of reform fails again in 2013, 60% of Latino voters say Republicans will be to blame. That’s a finding that should have Rubio and the Republicans worried.

Rubio is at a crossroads: he can be a leader in his party on immigration reform and go down in history as the man who began to rebuild the near-nonexistent relationship between the Repulbican Party and Latino voters, or the leader of the conservative wing opposed to reform that has done nothing to win Republicans the White House—as demonstrated in recent elections, most clearly in 2012.

Which side is he on?

Maribel Hastings is a Senior Advisor at America’s Voice Education Fund.