Where Does Marco Rubio Stand on Immigration?

It’s time for the Florida senator to stop avoiding the issue.

Sen. Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio speaks during the GOP presidential debate on Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Let’s talk about Marco Rubio. Back in the 1980s, Pat Schroeder, a liberal congresswoman from Colorado, dubbed Ronald Reagan “the Teflon president” for the way he managed to avoid any blame for the scandals that erupted around him in his second term. One wonders whether Rubio is emerging as the Teflon candidate. With the possible exception of the silver-tongued Carly Fiorina, no Republican presidential candidate has helped himself more over the course of the first four debates than Rubio. On Tuesday night, Rubio fared well again. He wasn’t quite as strong as Ted Cruz, who, as Slate’s Josh Voorhees argues, was the night’s biggest winner. More than usual, Rubio seemed to be drawing on his stock references to his hardscrabble upbringing and his immigrant parents, and his optimistic homilies about the healing power of the American Dream. What was really striking about Rubio’s performance, however, is the way he dodged, yet again, getting drawn into a debate over immigration policy.

Donald Trump has made combating unauthorized immigration his signature issue, and he has not hesitated to attack Rubio for having supported a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. We’ll never know whether Trump intended to go after Rubio by name on Tuesday, as John Kasich interrupted him to declare that the idea of mass deportation is unserious. Earlier on in the campaign, it briefly seemed as though Kasich might try to differentiate himself from Rubio and Jeb Bush by taking a more restrictionist approach to immigration. It’s now clear that Kasich intends to run as an immigration dove, which puts him in a tough position, as only a small (7 percent) minority of Republican voters want to increase immigration levels while a large (67 percent) majority wants to see immigration levels decreased. Does it really make sense for Kasich to try to duke it out with fellow doves Bush and Rubio over this small sliver of the GOP electorate? It could be that Kasich is playing not to Republican voters but to Republicans donors, who tend to take a far more laissez-faire view when it comes to immigration. Or perhaps Kasich was so determined to be ornery that he was going to pick a fight about something—anything—with Donald Trump to demonstrate his fighting spirit. Who knows? What we do know is that it was Kasich who wrangled with Trump over what to do about unauthorized immigrants, not Marco Rubio.

Perhaps sensing that he was being marginalized on one of his signature issues, Jeb Bush decided to take on immigration Tuesday night, arguing that Trump’s anti-immigration zeal would drive Hispanic voters to Hillary Clinton in the general election. Though I don’t doubt that Trump’s rhetoric will alienate many if not most Hispanics, I’m of the view that immigration policy is less important to working- and middle-class Hispanic voters, particularly native-born Hispanic voters, than Bush and other pro-immigration Republicans like to think. Regardless, it was Bush, not Marco Rubio, who weighed in at this point to claim that a harsh anti-immigration stance would alienate Hispanics.

It would be one thing if Rubio only avoided talking about comprehensive immigration reform on the debate stage, but the Florida senator has soft-pedaled the issue throughout his campaign, only occasionally explaining why he decided to abandon his comprehensive immigration reform bill, which offered a path to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants and substantially increased legal immigration, among other things. Instead of repudiating the months he spent crafting an immigration compromise, Rubio emphasizes that he couldn’t trust President Obama as a partner, or that the timing wasn’t right. He insists that he pushed the comprehensive immigration reform bill in as conservative a direction as he could.

Yet we don’t have a clear sense of where, in an ideal world, Rubio would like U.S. immigration policy to go. On his nattily designed website, Rubio excerpts a passage from American Dreams, his biography, in which he makes the case for securing the border first, a conservative-friendly stance. He calls for moving from an immigration policy that emphasizes family ties to current U.S. citizens to one that is instead based on skills, which is sensible and broadly acceptable to the Republican right. What we don’t know is what this would mean in practice. Can we really say that we have a skills-based immigration policy if we also have a guest worker program for less-skilled workers, and if guest worker status can be renewed indefinitely? One assumes that guest workers will form families on U.S. soil and that many of them will be reluctant to leave the country once their guest worker visas run out. And though Rubio discusses immigration policy in broad strokes, he doesn’t really tell us about numbers. Will we admit more immigrants under the approach he favors? Or fewer? Even after abandoning comprehensive immigration reform, Rubio has backed legislation that would dramatically expand the H-1B visa program. What does he think about the evidence that the H-1B program is being gamed by offshoring companies with less than sterling records? These are questions I’d like to see Rubio answer at a future debate.

Other elements of Rubio’s immigration approach are likely to prove even more controversial. For example, he makes it clear that he intends to offer some form of legal status to unauthorized immigrants who already live in the U.S., a position that puts him at odds with many Republicans.* If Rubio intends to stick with this position, as I think he does, he’s going to have to actually make the case for it. If Bernie Sanders can give a speech about democratic socialism, surely Marco Rubio can give a speech about where he went wrong on immigration and what he intends to do about it.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary. 

*Correction, Nov. 11, 2015: This article originally misstated that Rubio’s position put him at odds with “most Republicans.” Recent surveys find that while most Republicans oppose a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, a narrow majority favors offering them legal status in some form. (Return.)