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  1. Florida Politics

Sen. Marco Rubio wants to 'wind down' program for immigrant youth

Sen. Marco Rubio is eyeing a run for president in 2016.
Published Jul. 25, 2014

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday called for an end to President Barack Obama's program that grants legal status to immigrant youth brought to the United States by their parents.

"The U.S. must also make clear that the Deferred Action program, or any law or policy for that matter, does not and will not apply to any recent arrivals," read a statement Rubio issued after a meeting with Central American presidents. "Furthermore, because the recent wave from Central America spiked after (Deferred Action) was announced, it is in our interest to wind down this program. If you are not currently in it, you should not be eligible for it. For President Obama to raise hopes it may actually be unilaterally expanded is irresponsible and threatens to make this problem even worse."

It was, on the surface, not surprising as Rubio has joined Republican bashing of the president over the problem of migrant children showing up at the southern border.

Except Rubio pursued the same idea that Obama executed in 2012, protecting hundreds of thousands of "Dreamers" from the threat of deportation.

It was the Florida Republican's first foray into immigration, inspired, he said, by the plight of a valedictorian in Miami who faced a deportation order. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, got widespread praise but never produced the legislation and in June 2012, Obama stepped in. Neither plan provided an avenue to citizenship.

Rubio's comments, condemned by reform activists as a betrayal of those he once sought to help, reflect the rapidly rising heat around immigration and the politics within the Republican Party as he eyes a run for president in 2016. Some of the staunchest conservatives, most vocally Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have called for an end to Obama's program.

On the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, Cruz ripped into the president, saying he "unilaterally granted amnesty." Cruz is a potential rival to Rubio for the 2016 GOP nomination, and he voted against the comprehensive reform bill Rubio helped write and pass in the Senate last year.

Frustrated by stalled attempts at immigration reform in Congress, Obama has talked of taking more executive action. More than 640,000 people have gotten two-year reprieves, which are renewable, under deferred action through March of this year. Among them: 27,000 Floridians.

Whether deferred action is the root cause of the children arriving at the border is a matter of debate. Experts say it could play a role, but more plausible is a 2008 human trafficking law that provided legal protection to children coming from Central America. PunditFact.com, a fact-checking website of the Tampa Bay Times, has rated claims attributing the problem to Obama's policy as Mostly False in part because the initial rise in arrivals began before Obama announced the policy and if anything, plateaued or declined a bit immediately afterward.

Rubio has joined calls to adjust that law, signed by President George W. Bush, though he said it should be balanced with "the goal of protecting human trafficking victims with our interest in quickly returning people to their countries."

Former Gov. Jeb Bush echoed that call in an op-ed published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal. Bush has come under attack for his calls for immigration reform and for saying that many people who cross the border illegally do so as an "act of love" for their families. His article espoused a tougher view but also said House Republicans should move on reform so Obama doesn't act alone.

The heat Bush has endured pales in comparison to Rubio, who saw his stock plummet among conservative activists. He has spent the past year distancing himself from a comprehensive approach, saying enforcement must come before other steps, including what to do with the more than 11 million people here illegally.

Still, Rubio's call Thursday to wind down deferred action was notable given his work on the issue and that part of his promise as a national presidential candidate is his Hispanic roots. Reform activists, who have had an up-and-down relationship with Rubio, lashed out.

"I thought Rubio was a profile in courage when he stood up for the Dreamers in 2012 and he helped make immigration reform possible in the Senate in 2013. This kind of comment just shows he's a profile in cowardice and his presidential ambitions are more important to him than any kind of policy stand," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform America's Voice.

"It's outrageous and disheartening that Sen. Rubio, who once expressed support for a DREAM Act, has turned his back on Dreamers and now aligns with right-wing extremists like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who both want nothing more than to deport us and our parents," said Lorella Praeli, advocacy director for United We Dream.

A spokesman for Rubio, Alex Conant, said he never produced the 2012 legislation because of the issues now under debate.

"That was frankly one of the things we were wrestling with," Conant said. At the time Rubio said he did not want the program to encourage more illegal immigration.

Contact Alex Leary at leary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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