WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio pulled back on past support for tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants Wednesday, repositioning himself on a growing controversy in the Republican presidential race.
The careful remarks during a forum in Washington attracted new attention to Rubio's political ambition — even as, yet again, he parried talk of running for vice president.
"As a general rule," Rubio said, "people in the United States who are here without documents should not benefit from programs like in-state tuition." He said carve-outs, while a worthy objective, have become harder to justify.
The chief sponsor of the proposed Florida legislation called Rubio's response "clever" but "very self-serving."
The issue exploded into the presidential race with the entrance of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who in 2001 signed legislation giving breaks to children of illegal immigrants. Mitt Romney and other rivals have relentlessly criticized Perry as soft on the immigration — attacks that have contributed to Perry's precipitous fall from the top of the polls.
For Rubio to appear to side with Perry — he even refused to say whether the Texas bill was similar to Florida's, even though it served as the model — could be politically damaging.
In a broader context, it illustrated the difficult spot he finds himself in. Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, has been promoted by GOP leaders as someone who can draw Hispanics into the party. Those leaders would rather play down immigration but grass-roots activists have forced it into the fore.
Speaking during the Washington Ideas Forum, Rubio attempted to straddle issue. He sketched a scenario where a small child is brought to the country illegally by his parents.
"These kids have grown up here their entire lives, they're 18 now and they can't go to college," he said. "Now here's the rub: If that kid is 6-foot-7 and can dunk a basketball or throw a 95 mph fast-pitch, we're going to find a way to keep them, right? But if the kid has a 4.0 GPA, you're going to deport him? So people look at that and say, 'Well maybe we should find a way to accommodate that.' "
But he also said that as the immigration problem has intensified, and gone unresolved at a federal level, it has gotten "harder and harder" to find solutions.
"His explanation is clever but in my opinion very self-serving," said former state Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, who championed the Florida legislation in the early part of the last decade.
"If he really wants to help those children he talks about, he could propose something, anything, even if on a limited basis. The man is a U.S. senator, after all," Zapata said.
Rubio fielded the inevitable question about whether he's interested in serving as a vice presidential running mate. He said he did not view the Senate as a stepping stone and that much could be accomplished from that position.
But if asked ...
"The answer is going to probably be no," Rubio said then correcting himself, smiling, "The answer is going to be no."