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."