WASHINGTON — Two years after embracing hard-line immigration positions during his rapid political climb, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is on a difficult quest for middle ground.
He emerged on the issue late last year with calls for less heated rhetoric and is now working on an alternative to the Dream Act.
The plan, not yet public, is generating widespread discussion, underscoring Rubio's status and potential as a Hispanic voice for the GOP. It would grant legal status to children of undocumented immigrants, but not a path to citizenship, as the Dream Act would.
"You have to wait in line, but you get to wait in line in the U.S. legally," Rubio said in an interview. His leap into the contentious immigration issue carries great risk and reward, both for his personal ambitions and the GOP, which is staring wide-eyed at a growing Hispanic population turned off by the tone of debate and aggressive enforcement policies.
Immigration reform has been at a standstill since the last effort collapsed in 2007, exacting a price on Rubio's predecessor, Sen. Mel Martinez. In the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain was discarded as a moderate by the GOP base for offering "amnesty" to millions of undocumented residents.
In 2010, Republicans seized a hard line that became a litmus test for candidates in elections across the country.
Rubio, who was seen as a moderate during his years in the Florida Legislature, adopted the GOP's "border-first" approach, saying nothing should be done until the border is fully secured and tougher enforcement measures are in place. He called for English as the official U.S. language, voiced support for the aggressive law in Arizona and opposed the Dream Act.
But Republicans are increasingly worried about the effects of that approach. Obama got two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008 and polls show him holding the advantage in November.
Hispanics are the country's fastest-growing minority group, climbing to 50.5 million in 2010 from 35.3 million in 2000, according to the census. The number of eligible voters increased to 21.3 million from 13.2 million.
So the GOP is turning to Rubio, the charismatic 40-year-old son of Cuban immigrants from Miami, who leaves Senate colleagues in awe as he effortlessly shifts from English to Spanish during news conferences.
Rubio's steps toward taking a role in the immigration debate have been carefully planned. First came his call for the GOP to tone down the rhetoric. In November, he did an interview with the Wall Street Journal and followed it with an appearance on Fox News.
"The Republican Party should not be labeled as the anti-illegal immigration party," Rubio said. "Republicans need to be the pro-legal immigration party."
Now comes his Dream Act alternative, which would give legal status to college students and members of the military. Rubio says he was spurred by Daniela Pelaez, a North Miami High School valedictorian who faced deportation.
When Rubio met with the 18-year-old recently, he said something should be done but insisted the Dream Act was not the way. Rubio says it would create "chain migration" in which the young people are magnets for family to come from other countries.
Some experts doubt his proposal — which stands little chance of passing while Democrats control the Senate — would have the intended effect or would even work.
"It's clearly not intended to do the same thing as the Dream Act," said Gabriel Sanchez, research director for Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan polling group. "The Latino population is more sophisticated on the immigration issue than the non-Latino population. I think they'll be able to read through this."
A Pew Hispanic Center poll showed 91 percent of Latinos support the Dream Act, which includes the path to citizenship Rubio's proposal lacks.
The New York Times editorial board called Rubio's plan a half measure — "a Dream Act without the dream" — that would create a new class of residents.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Rubio dismissed that as "false."
"There is nothing that prohibits them from getting citizenship," he said. "We just don't create a new pathway. Someone would say, 'Well, it's going to take them forever to get residency.' Well, that's true of anybody. The system has to be modernized but that's a separate topic."
Ruben Navarrette Jr., a syndicated columnist who writes about immigration and has criticized Rubio, called his proposal a "common sense solution" and said it could "break a stalemate and improve millions of lives."
Walking a fine line
Rubio demonstrated in the 2010 Senate race that he can thread a needle: He rode the tea party wave without being defined by the movement. The immigration issue is trickier. Rubio has to find a moderate position without looking like he is simply offering up a GOP bone to win Hispanic votes and without alienating hard-core conservatives.
Already he is drawing fire from the far right.
"Your fellow Republicans will make our voices heard if you support or propose any piece of amnesty or 'legalization' legislation (just as we did in 2007)," read a letter sent to Rubio by a member of Numbers USA, a group that demands strict enforcement of immigration law.
The GOP may be willing to risk that kind of backlash as a fringe position — a number of conservative commentators have backed Rubio — but it illustrates the risks.
"Probably the safest thing to do is for him not to touch it with a 10-foot pole," said Ana Navarro, a GOP strategist in Florida. "Most people recognize immigration can be radioactive.
"I think Marco is showing courage," Navarro added. "Marco is the only Republican both willing and able to move the ball on this because of his standing with the right-wing base and opinion makers. If Marco fails at this, there are simply no other trains left at the station. It's that drastic and that simple."
An evolving view
Since he became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, Rubio has woven his parents' immigrant story into a powerful narrative (and a memoir due June 19) about the American dream.
But his background and the heat surrounding immigration have also put Rubio under great scrutiny. On the Senate campaign trail he generally took the GOP line on immigration issues, from the Arizona law — which he first spoke out against, drawing backlash from conservatives, then said he liked after it was tweaked — to reflect the need for a national employee verification system.
Rubio never engaged in heated rhetoric himself and expressed an openness to reform, saying the GOP needed to be the pro-legal immigration party. His aides say his views have been consistent. But, to many, the shift was noticeable.
"A lot of people held such high hopes that he would be a voice for Hispanics, that he could transcend partisan politics. If anything he's done the opposite of that. It hurt his national brand and I think he's realizing that," said former state Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami.
Rubio once co-sponsored Zapata's bill to provide in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants. (Last year, Rubio stepped away from that position.) A number of tough immigration bills died under Rubio's watch as House speaker.
"I always told people he would come back," Zapata said of Rubio's current efforts. "Marco is looking down the road, past this election. He needs to position himself; you just have to look at the demographics."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]