TALLAHASSEE — Juan Escalante thought Marco Rubio was on the cusp of being a hero to him and thousands of children brought to Florida by undocumented immigrant parents. Now he wants to end the U.S. senator's political career for good.
As Rubio has transitioned from senator to presidential candidate and back to Senate candidate, no issue has been thornier — or more complicated — than his position on immigration reform, and more specifically what to do with young immigrants, often called Dreamers, brought to the country illegally by their parents.
The desperate voices Rubio once put his political capital on the line for now use words like "traitor," "backstab" and "betrayal" and are promising to be dedicated foot soldiers to help Democrat Patrick Murphy win election, even though Murphy himself has been too quiet on the topic to their liking. Dreamers cannot vote, but they hope to appeal to the state's Hispanic voters, about 2 million, and the 19 percent of Floridians who are foreign-born according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"He abandoned us," Escalante, now a 27-year-old graduate student at Florida State University, says of Rubio. "We cannot forget that he has backstabbed our community time and time again when it comes to immigration."
Rubio insists that is not true and says his attempts to help were a "good faith effort" that unraveled because of factors out of his control.
"We tried to make a difference within the confines of our system," Rubio said in an interview with the Times/Herald. "It just didn't work out. I didn't have to do it. It's something I did because I honestly wanted to make a difference and I still do."
This goes back to early 2012, when Rubio told immigration protesters at a speech in Doral that he believed there could be a bipartisan way to accommodate them. That led Rubio to meet with immigration advocates and start building legislation to protect Dreamers from deportation.
"He told me, 'I'm really going to do this,' and I told him I'd support him," recalls U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is one of the biggest advocates for Dreamers in Congress. "I knew he was serious then."
Escalante said it felt like a major turning point.
"You had an individual who was meeting with the mothers of Dreamers and telling them that he is working for them and working for comprehensive immigration reform and that they shouldn't worry about him," said Escalante, a Venezuela native brought to the United States at age 11.
But the legislation Rubio was working on never saw the light of day. Instead, President Barack Obama announced executive action in June 2012 offering temporary protection from deportation for an estimated 1 million younger people.
Worse to Escalante is that as Rubio's 2016 campaign for the White House grew, the issue disappeared from the Miami Republican's agenda and he advocated for rescinding Obama's executive order. This after Rubio worked on more comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 that could have provided a pathway to legalization for Dreamers. (The measure never made it to a vote in the House.)
On Rubio's Senate campaign website, repealing Obama's order is the first plank in his immigration platform with no hint of what would happen to Escalante and his brothers.
New data released earlier this month by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show 50,216 children of undocumented immigrant parents in Florida — and almost 750,000 nationwide — have been granted temporary deportation relief under Obama's program. Repealing the order wouldn't take away the legal status of those 50,000 immediately, but they would be prevented from seeking renewals as they are required to seek every two years.
"A lot of us really believed in him," said Frank Sharry, founder of a America's Voice, a nonprofit founded in 2008 aimed at being a voice for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented residents. "Now as far as I'm concerned there is a special dark place in my heart for Marco Rubio."
Sharry's group has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to radio ads in Florida starting next week to make Rubio pay for his "traitorous betrayal."
Sharry said he is confounded that Murphy hasn't said more. He says polling shows that if Hispanic voters know how Rubio went from working to help to advocating repeal of Obama's actions, it has a dramatic impact on their choice in November.
In a nationwide poll of 3,700 Hispanic voters commissioned by his group in late August, 83 percent said they supported Obama's executive actions to protect Dreamers. But that same polling showed 63 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida did not know Murphy's position.
Murphy not only supports Obama's executive action, but wants a pathway to citizenship for those who graduate high school, attend college or join the military. Early next week he is scheduled to meet in Central Florida with Dreamers at the same time the Florida Democratic Party sends out mail pieces slamming Rubio over the issue.
"This is an important issue for me," Murphy said. "People can expect to hear a lot more from us."
Rubio said if there is someone to blame for Dreamers being left in limbo, it is Obama. He said that in 2012 he was closing in on filing his Dreamer proposal. But in May that year, Gutierrez warned the White House he was going to help Rubio and predicted his plan would pass in the absence of Obama doing anything to help. Two weeks later the Obama administration announced its executive actions would include many of the same things Rubio was working on.
"There is no doubt in my mind that they scrambled to get out their executive order because they didn't want to get outflanked by legislation," said Rubio, who says Obama's actions were unconstitutional and destroyed trust with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"In the process of doing that, he set the cause back," Rubio said.
Legislation that affects some 50,000 Floridians might not seem so dangerous for a politician at first blush, but the issue has power for Hispanic voters beyond those directly affected, said Cristina Jimenez, an activist with United We Dream.
"The issue of the heart in the community is immigration," Jimenez said. "This is going to be a driving issue for this community to vote. For many people, Nov. 8 is about whether you can stay in America or are you going to be deported."
"Our members in Florida are very clear what (Rubio) is about now."
Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] Follow @jeremyswallace.