As an underdog U.S. Senate candidate courting the GOP's conservative wing, Marco Rubio takes a hard-line position against illegal immigration: no amnesty.
But as the powerful speaker of the Florida House, presented with a slew of bills aimed at curbing illegal immigration, he didn't put a single proposal up for a vote.
"A lot of us are mad at him because he did block those bills," said David Caulkett, a founder of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement. "Rubio claims to be anti-amnesty but the question is, 'Do we trust him?' "
Rubio says he hasn't wavered in his opposition to granting citizenship to illegal immigrants but that the issue should be dealt with by the federal government, not the states. The Legislature was focused on tax and insurance reform on his watch, he said.
"We picked one or two key issues," Rubio said. "States can't solve illegal immigration."
Rubio's record on immigration is under scrutiny now that the issue is on his agenda and his bid against Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination is gaining ground.
Immigration was nowhere to be found in the book 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future that he compiled as House speaker; now it's among nine issues addressed on his campaign Web site.
The son of Cuban exiles born in Miami says he opposed the proposal spearheaded in 2006 by former Sen. Mel Martinez — whose early retirement triggered Rubio's 2010 campaign — that would have allowed illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship. Crist supported the bill.
On the campaign trail, Rubio sometimes refers to "illegal aliens," a legal term some immigrant advocates find offensive.
"His tone has changed on the subject, and to me it's very obvious that it's for political reasons," said state Rep. Juan Zapata of Miami, a Crist supporter.
After immigration reform collapsed in Congress, state legislatures around the country clamored to fill the void. In 2008, 1,305 bills were considered and 206 were enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The half-dozen bills in the Florida House that year would have penalized farmers who hire illegal workers, required proof of citizenship to receive government benefits, encouraged police to turn in suspected illegal immigrants and allowed illegal immigrants serving time to be deported to their home countries.
As speaker, Rubio wielded sweeping powers over whether bills fizzled or coasted to the floor for votes. The immigration-related bills were relegated to a public workshop, allowing lawmakers to hear from activists on both sides of the issue without voting. State Rep. David Rivera of Miami, a top Rubio lieutenant, gave an impassioned speech about the economic contributions of undocumented workers on Florida's economy as landscapers, maids, dishwashers and farm workers.
"The bills didn't get at the real problem, which was employers hiring illegal immigrants," Rivera said Friday. "Rubio at least brought the issue to the forefront, which is more than any other speaker has done."
Rubio said it's unfair to blame him solely for the bills' failure, noting that their counterparts in the Senate also languished. After he left office, the proposals continued to flounder.
Rubio advocates a national guest worker program in which immigrants can't get a job without a tamper-proof card validating their legal status.
"The Republican party is not the anti-immigration party," Rubio says. "It's the pro-legal immigration party."
The sound bite reflects Rubio's carefully calculated approach: show respect for the rule of law while avoiding harsh rhetoric. When asked about illegal immigrants taking advantage of government services, Rubio pointed out that American citizens are also guilty of welfare abuse.
"They're God's children, but they're here illegally," he recently told a Republican club in northwest Florida. "You can't round up 11 million people because we don't live in a police state. But you can't grant amnesty either because if you do, you will destroy any hope of having a legal immigration system that works. You will send a message that all you have to do is come into this country, stay here long enough and we will let you stay."
Ana Navarro, a Rubio donor who has lobbied on immigration in Washington, said his emphasis on enforcement reflects the public's anxiety over border security.
"Every Republican has moved to the right on immigration," she said. "At some point the political reality hits you in the face."