How Rubio Reformed His Immigration Thinking

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks to guests during the Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami, Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. (National Journal)

Arizona Sen. John McCain partnered with liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy in 2005 to offer illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, then allied with border security hardliners during a tough 2010 Republican primary. "Complete the danged fence," McCain cracked in a widely publicized television spot.

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Less well known is the equally dramatic pivot by Marco Rubio, from 2010 candidate who dismissed McCain's proposal as "amnesty," to U.S. senator who on Monday championed reforms McCain said had "very little difference" from his previous plan, which became the blueprint for failed legislation in 2006 and 2007.

During a March 28, 2010 Fox News debate against then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Rubio said: "He would have voted for the McCain plan. I think that plan is wrong, and the reason I think it's wrong is that if you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do, in any form, whether it's back of the line or so forth, you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America."

In a CNN debate on Oct 24, 2010, moderator Candy Crowley asked, "So your plan is that you're going to close the borders, get the electronic system, fix the legal system, and then do what?" Rubio responded: "And then you'll have a legal immigration system that works. And you'll have people in this country that are without documents that will be able to return to the -- will be able to leave this country, return to their homeland, and try to re-enter through our system that now functions, a system that makes sense"¦Earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty."

The legislation Rubio backed Monday requires illegal immigrants to pass a criminal background check, hold down a job, pay fines and back taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line "“ just like previous proposals. "It is not going to be an easy process, but it's certainly going to be a fair one and a humane one and one that speaks to our nation's legacy, both as a nation of laws, but also as a nation of immigrants," Rubio said at the Capitol Hill press conference. As details of the new legislation are still emerging, it's unclear what Rubio sees as the differences between it and past proposals.

What is apparent is that the turnaround by the potential presidential contender reflects a changing political calculus. Rubio went from longshot to rock star in the tea party-dominated 2010 campaign in part by running to the right of the moderate governor. Now, after two years of burnishing his conservative record in the Senate, immigration reform offers one of the nation's most prominent Hispanic Republicans an opportunity to show leadership and substance as he positions himself for a possible White House bid.

"He took a right turn on immigration but he's slowly coming back to where I think he's naturally oriented," said Marshall Fitz, direction of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. "He understands he has to be a player on this issue."

As Rubio's star power and skills at framing the immigration debate begin to lure conservatives to the table, the potential for a breakthrough in Washington is already overshadowing his previous policy shifts.

As a state lawmaker in 2003 and 2004, he co-sponsored bills to give college tuition breaks to illegal immigrants. As Florida House Speaker in 2008, half a dozen bills that aimed to crack down on illegal immigrants fizzled on his watch.

But during the 2010 campaign, Rubio towed the anti-amnesty line demanded by the conservative base of his party. He even argued the U.S. census should count "only legal citizens" because including illegal immigrants would "actually incentivize politicians to perpetuate our broken immigration system by rewarding states with large illegal immigrant populations with a louder voice in Washington." The statement drew rebukes from fellow Republicans and led Rubio to clarify that only legal residents should be counted.

In Oct. 2011, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry's advocacy for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in his own state had, in part, cost him the lead in the Republican primary, Rubio retreated from his previous support for such tuition breaks. "As a general rule, people in the United States who are here without documentation should not benefit from programs like in-state tuition,'' Rubio said at the time.

Rubio's approach changed again a few months later when he began touting legal status for illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military, and he criticized members of his own party for using "harsh and intolerable" rhetoric. "He put his neck out there," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the center-right Hispanic Leadership Network. "In watching him and seeing how he operates, I think he does things because he believes in them, not because they are politically expedient."

But at the same time he was promoting an alternative to the DREAM Act, Rubio filed a bill that would make it harder for undocumented workers to claim a child tax credit.

"Frankly it was perplexing," Fitz said. "I don't know if it was an effort to inoculate him from attacks on the right, but it didn't make any sense to take food off the table from U.S. citizen kids in the name of trying to make life harder for their undocumented parents."

Rubio never produced DREAM Act legislation, and his level of engagement wasn't completely clear until two weeks ago, when he outlined his principles in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: tighter border security, temporary work visas for low-skilled workers, more visas for high-skilled workers and an arduous way for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. That's roughly the same McCain plan Rubio once said he opposed.  Yet immigration advocates who have criticized Rubio's policy shifts in the past are holding back as his presence gives new momentum to their longtime goals.

"Politicians do change their positions, for better or worse," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "It happened with John McCain, who moved to the right in an election and is now back in the mix, and it's happened with Rubio. People take their journey -- what I am more concerned about is their destination."