Marco Rubio Has a Latino Problem

As Cuban-Americans celebrate his candidacy, other Hispanic voters accuse the Republican of betrayal.

MIAMI—Chanting his name and raising cellphones in the air, scores of Cuban-Americans rallied behind Marco Rubio's presidential campaign at this city's historic Freedom Tower, excited to see the Hispanic contender launch a bid for the White House.

But just across the street stood a stark reminder that the Florida Republican is far from cornering the nation's fast-growing Latino vote: Two dozen protestors, bullhorns and homemade signs in hand, criticizing Rubio for his opposition to President Obama's executive actions on immigration.

"Rubio's dream is our nightmare!" read one sign.

The dueling crowds underscore Rubio's challenge with Latinos as he tries to woo his party's conservative base to survive primary season and win the GOP nomination.

(RELATED: Marco Rubio Makes His Pitch as the Fresh Face of the GOP in 2016)

Rubio's team hopes Hispanics will be drawn to the historic nature of his candidacy, something he highlighted Monday by announcing his campaign from the port of call for Cuban refugees who fled Fidel Castro. He also spoke movingly about his immigrant parents, using their journey to the United States as a symbol of the American Dream.

But his sponsorship of a bipartisan immigration bill in 2013—and his subsequent abandonment of that measure—has made him an enemy of conservative activists and immigration advocates alike.

Reform supporters say Rubio betrayed them when he backed away from the Senate measure that would have bolstered border security while offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It failed, but many conservatives still view it as "amnesty," and that tension will almost certainly carry into 2016.

"We are here to show people the real Rubio," said 18-year-old Diego Ramirez Vargas, who said his mother brought him to the U.S. from Mexico a decade ago, along with his brother and sister. "Once he was able to get what he wants, he stopped helping us."

(RELATED: Sign up for TwentySixteen — National Journal's daily guide to 2016)

Rubio pushed again Monday in his speech to "modernize our immigration laws," but he has said he now thinks changes should be made incrementally, starting with securing the country's southern border, a position popular with the GOP activists who hold outsize sway in the primaries. He also has called for an end to an Obama administration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which temporarily defers deportations and grants work permits to immigrants who call themselves Dreamers, saying it encourages illegal immigration.

"If he's against DACA, he's for separating families," said Michael Sanchez, a 21-year-old student who's majoring in education at Miami-Dade College. "He's trying to use the Latino vote in his favor, but he doesn't stand" with those brought to the country illegally as children.

Inside the Freedom Tower, though, Cuban-Americans—a traditionally conservative voting bloc— reveled in Rubio's announcement. "He gives us hope and not the failed policies of this administration," said Jose A. Mesa, Jr., a 67-year-old business consultant. "What he's saying makes us proud."

Ana Hernandez, a 52-year-old law firm manager, agreed.

"He's the first Cuban-American candidate, ever," she beamed, looking past Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. "I'm Cuban-American, and I needed to be here for this special day."