WASHINGTON — Tea party members protested Tuesday at one of Sen. Marco Rubio's Florida offices, revealing strains in the relationship since Rubio became the national face of immigration reform.
"We have some disagreement over our definition of amnesty," said Jim McGovern, an organizer with the Martin County 9/12 Tea Party Committee. "He's claiming the requirement for individuals now considered undocumented aliens would be onerous and it would be less difficult to go back to their home country and apply there. We disagree with opening that door."
McGovern said tea party members object to the closed-door process Rubio and the bipartisan Gang of 8 has followed to produce the legislation being released this week after months of negotiations.
He said Rubio talked as a candidate about the dangers of huge, comprehensive bills.
About 35 people showed up at Rubio's office in Palm Beach Gardens and a representative from the senator's office spoke with the group.
Rubio responded with a letter directed at clearing up "misinformation" about his position, saying he would not support a bill that is rushed through and noted the Judiciary Committee delayed a meeting set for Wednesday and scheduled a second one next week.
"Immigration reform is a difficult issue," he wrote. "It represents the kind of broken government that tea party members across our country were fed up with in 2010, and an issue that inspired me to run in order to change the way Washington works."
He said he would not support "anything that makes our immigration system worse," does not secure the borders "or that leads to further illegal immigration in the future."
Rubio was widely associated with the rise of the tea party in 2010, even as he kept footing in the GOP establishment. A fallout with grass roots conservatives could be problematic if he runs for president in 2016.
Other Florida tea party leaders say they trust Rubio on the issue.
"He's tried to push that we need to secure the borders first," said Sharon Calvert, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party. "The reality of the situation is the problem needs to be dealt with. It's an issue the Republican Party needs to deal with. Rubio understands why people come to our country and he's trying to deal with it so we don't have to again."
Clyde Fabretti, co-founder of the West Orlando Tea Party, was more emphatic: "Whenever you hear he's losing face with conservatives, that's bunk. The real grass roots tea party movement, the boots on the ground, we support his leadership. We really believe, as he does, that a precondition to any deal must be to secure the border. Rubio is consistent about that."
Rubio, he said, "is what he is. He's always been conservative in our view."
Rubio's involvement in comprehensive reform so far has not hurt fundraising. On Monday, Rubio's fundraising committees reported raising nearly $2.3 million over the past three months.