Maybe Marco Rubio can’t win on immigration.
Five years ago, as a first-term U.S. senator, the Miami Republican helped carry a doomed immigration overhaul bill and suffered politically as a result. Now, in 2018, he’s kept a low profile amid a fever-pitch debate over immigration — and it’s beginning to rankle some of his former political allies in Miami.
Rubio is taking heat on the home front for not being out front as Congress works to pass new immigration legislation in time to avoid another government shutdown next month. Business groups and immigration activists such as billionaire Coral Gables healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez are calling the Cuban-American senator out for doing too little to support one of the largest immigrant communities in the country.
Fernandez, despite being a former GOP donor, supported Rubio’s Democratic opponent in 2016. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday blasted his one-time mentee for lacking the political courage to take on a risky issue.
“God forbid you actually took on something that was controversial and paid a political price,” Bush told USA Today. “That’s the attitude in D.C. right now. Certainly Sen. Rubio is no different in that regard. Marco is a talented guy and he understands this issue really well, and maybe behind the scenes he’s working hard. But at some point, his leadership would be really helpful.”
Rubio’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Justin Sayfie, a former communications director for Jeb Bush and current lobbyist for Ballard Partners in Florida and Washington, cautioned not to “mistake his [Rubio’s] lack of a high profile for not being engaged.”
In contrast to 2013, Sayfie said, Rubio’s voice is less important on the topic on Capitol Hill this time around. He said the debate is narrower than the comprehensive immigration reform pursued by the Gang of Eight, a group of four Democrats and four Republicans including Rubio, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
“He did it on a really big, massive comprehensive reform level and certainly paid a price during the presidential primary,” Sayfie said.
Case in point: While Bush is now criticizing Rubio’s lack of leadership on immigration, a Super PAC backing Bush’s own presidential campaign in 2016 slammed Rubio during the campaign for supporting “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants.
Local leaders, including Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón, say they have been contacting Rubio’s office to talk about immigration. Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Julio Fuentes said that Rubio’s office told him the senator “is not the right person to be that champion” on immigration after his efforts failed in 2013.
“Sen. Rubio is so important because of what he represents: His father came here to this country [from Cuba] in the pursuit of the American Dream. This is something that should be near and dear to his heart,” said Felice Gorordo, a board member of the bipartisan Immigration Partnership and Coalition (IMPAC) Fund that Fernandez established last year to help pay for the defense of undocumented immigrants. “And yet we see him absent in this debate.”
Rubio has remained in the background as other members of South Florida’s delegation, particularly Republican Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, have been vocal leaders for immigration legislation. In Diaz-Balart’s case, he said he chose to be criticized for staying silent about Trump’s reported “shithole” comments about nations where citizens have temporary protected status in the U.S. in order to preserve his ability to talk immigration.
Rubio’s low profile on the topic comes as a group of senators try to craft an immigration bill that could win some Democratic support in the Senate while remaining conservative enough to win support from the House of Representatives and President Donald Trump. And lately, Rubio has opened up a little about his strategy, telling the Miami Herald on Thursday that legislation crafted by a small group of senators in secret has little chance of producing a bill that will pass a conservative, Republican-controlled Congress.
“I just don’t think that you can produce an immigration bill that five, 10, 12 people behind closed doors drafts and then brings to the floor and basically says our job is to pass this bill and fight off everybody’s amendments,” Rubio said. “I don’t think that will work. In fact, I think that would implode in the current environment and with the current realities.”
Rubio also said that the most important thing right now is to get “a result” for thousands of undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers who came to the U.S. as young children. Dreamers could face deportation as soon as March 5 if Congress does not pass a compromise immigration bill that will likely include some sort of funding for a “wall” at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s important to ensure that we get a result, and to do that we have to make sure we get what we need, even though it doesn’t have everything we want,” Rubio said.
Some congressional colleagues have privately said that it would help immigration efforts if Rubio spoke out publicly.
Curbelo is the only member from South Florida who wasn’t in Congress when Rubio’s immigration bill died in 2013. He’s also been one of the most vocal members on immigration this time around, voting several times against short-term spending bills because an immigration bill wasn’t imminent, before switching his vote this week after Senate Democrats, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, struck a deal with Republicans to debate and vote on immigration legislation in the next two weeks.
“I want to be part of the success story,” Curbelo said. “It hasn’t been easy for me to take this position on government funding, but I know that this institution [Congress] only acts when it’s forced to and I’m trying to force that action.”
Curbelo, though, exists in a far different political climate than Rubio, who isn’t up for reelection until 2022. Curbelo’s Miami-to-Key West district is the most Democratic-leaning district in the country represented by a Republican running for reelection in 2018.
So, while Rubio may face pressure in Miami to speak out, that won’t necessarily translate into lasting political pressure. Freddy Balsera, a Cuban American and Democratic strategist, doubted that immigration protests, like the one held outside Rubio’s office Thursday, will matter.
“In the case of Marco,” he said, “I don’t really know it keeps him up at night that there are 50 people outside his office protesting. With him, everything is a political calculation.”