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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rubio’s Immigration Evolution

Sen. Marco Rubio claimed during a Sunday talk show interview that the immigration bill he is pushing is not a change of position for him since his 2010 campaign. But it is.

Two years ago, Rubio derided an “earned path to citizenship” as another word for “amnesty” and told an interviewer with Human Events that people should have to return to their home countries and apply for citizenship, rather than be allowed to stay and be afforded a path to citizenship.

The 844-page bill introduced on April 16 by a bipartisan group of eight senators — including Rubio — does create an earned path to citizenship. According to the bill outline, once a series of border security measures are achieved, people who immigrated to the U.S. illegally and come forward “must submit to and pass background checks, be fingerprinted, pay $2,000 in fines, pay taxes, prove gainful employment, prove they’ve had a physical presence in the U.S. since before 2012 and [go] to the back of the line, among other criteria.” But ultimately, they would be able to achieve citizenship without having to return first to their native countries.

That’s different than the harder-line campaign position adopted by Rubio, a first-term senator from Florida who won election with tea party support, and a first generation Cuban-American who is considered a key player in forging a bipartisan immigration deal. During a whirlwind tour of Sunday talk shows on April 14 to advocate for the plan, NBC’s “Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked Rubio about his apparent change of heart.

Gregory: Three years ago in a debate, you were clear on this. You said to earn a pathway to citizenship, you would have to leave this country if you were here illegally, go back home, and then you could come back in. You said an earned pathway was amnesty. Yet, you’ve changed your mind here. Why?

Rubio: Well first of all, what I said throughout my campaign was that I was against a blanket amnesty. And I was and this is not blanket amnesty. On the contrary, this is not blanket anything. And secondly, it’s not amnesty, because you pay serious consequences for having violated the law….

Gregory: But there’s still a change, isn’t there, senator? I mean you said that you would have to leave the country before you could come back. And you’ve changed on that.

Rubio: But that’s not necessarily what I’ve said in the past. What I’ve said in the past is that there is a pathway to citizenship, and that is the legal immigration system. And all this bill does is give people access to the legal immigration system. It allows them to earn an access to the legal immigration system. And so what we are doing is we are creating an alternative to that path that exists now. And quite frankly, it’ll be cheaper, faster and easier to leave and wait ten years than it will be to go through this process that we’ve designed.

Rubio is revising history. For starters, Rubio answered the question about whether he’d changed his mind that “an earned pathway was amnesty” by noting that he was consistently against “blanket amnesty.” No such blanket amnesty was under consideration in the years leading up to Rubio’s campaign, however. The two most recent failed immigration overhaul efforts — the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, which Sen. John McCain introduced in 2005 — both proposed “pathways” to citizenship that included fines, payment of back taxes, probationary status, criminal background checks and proof of employment.

The plan now proposed by the group of eight senators, including Rubio, also contains a number of similar measures. Rubio argues that the plan he now supports includes steeper hurdles to citizenship than any plan proposed in the past, but the fact is, it would allow people who immigrated illegally to the United States to remain in the country legally and ultimately apply for citizenship.

If Rubio’s first answer to Gregory was evasive, his second answer to Gregory’s follow up about a previous position — that “you would have to leave the country before you could come back” — was misleading. According to Rubio, “that’s not necessarily what I’ve said in the past.” But that is what he has said in the past.

The bill now endorsed by Rubio represents a shift in position from the one he took when running for the Senate in 2010 as the more conservative alternative to then-Gov. Charlie Crist. During a Fox News debate on March 28, 2010, Rubio equated a path to citizenship “in any form” with amnesty.

Rubio: As far as amnesty, that’s where the governor and I disagree. He would have voted for the McCain plan. I think that plan is wrong, and the reason why 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.

During the Oct. 24, 2010, CNN debate, which Gregory referred to on “Meet the Press,” Rubio said he “never advocated that we round people up.” But CNN’s debate moderator Candy Crowley then followed up, “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: And then I think if — 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 home land, and try to re-enter through our system that now functions, a system that makes sense.

During the same debate, Crist said he advocated “an earned path to citizenship, not amnesty, as the speaker [Rubio] has unfairly characterized, in my view. I’m not for amnesty. People should have to get in the back of the line, pay a fine if necessary, their back taxes, and be able to become productive members of the American economy. It’s a compassionate way.”

Responding to that, Rubio said, “First of all, earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty. It’s what they call it. And the reality of it is this. … It is unfair to the people that have legally entered this country to create an alternative pathway for individuals who entered illegally and knowingly did so. And all I’m saying is that if you do that … you will never have a legal immigration system that works. No one is going to follow the law if there is an easier way to do it.”

And in a May 5, 2010, interview with Human Events, when asked if he was in favor of creating a path to citizenship, Rubio was even more explicit on the issue of whether people in the country illegally would have to leave in order to gain citizenship.

Rubio: Well, we have a path for citizenship. It’s called coming legally into this country. The ones who are already here. You can’t do it …

A key part of your sovereignty is the ability to control the influx and out flow of your people is the ability to secure your border. And you’re never going to be able to do that if you have an immigration system that says “come to this country illegally. If you’re able to stay here long enough, you’re able to stay here forever.” And you’re never going to have a legal immigration system that works if you grant amnesty.

And that’s why I’ve always believed that, no matter how well-intentioned it is. I understand the human stories that we’re going to … We’re gonna. … There are going to be stories of very young kids that were brought to this country at a very young age who don’t even speak Spanish that are going to be sent back to Nicaragua or some other place. And it’s gonna feel weird and I understand that. The goal here is to have an immigration policy that works. And if you provide a path for people to enter this country illegally and if they stay here long enough and pay enough in taxes, we’ll let them stay legally … why would anyone come in through the legal process?

Positions are carefully calibrated in the immigration debate because words like “amnesty” and “pathway to citizenship” become hot buttons for political rhetoric. But whether one prefers to use a phrase like “path to citizenship” or not, the fact is that Rubio’s plan would allow people who are now in the country illegally to eventually apply for citizenship (after border security measures have been met, e-verify has been established, fines and back taxes are paid and gainful employment proven etc.). Ironically, Rubio — a “tea party hero” during the campaign — now finds his plan under attack by some tea party activists as “amnesty.” We do not consider it amnesty — as we have written in the past — but it would be by Rubio’s definition two years ago.

— Robert Farley