Marco Rubio's immigration fog: His stance on his own reform legislation is impossible to discern

Marco Rubio worked feverishly to pass an immigration reform bill that he also says was never meant to be a law

Published February 16, 2016 5:46PM (EST)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

It’s pretty much impossible at this point to figure out what Marco Rubio thinks about his one real achievement as a United States senator: the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill. Rubio played a leading role in crafting and passing the legislation as part of the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight, but he abandoned the legislation not long after it passed when it became clear just how dangerous the bill was to his political ambitions. In the two-plus years since he washed his hands of his own accomplishment, Rubio has been struggling with how to frame his deviation from conservative orthodoxy so that it doesn’t hurt him with Republican primary voters.

This weekend in South Carolina, following yet another debate-stage battle with Ted Cruz over immigration, Rubio told the GOP faithful that the Gang of Eight bill – the legislation he worked doggedly to write and pass – was never meant to become law. Per NBC News:

"The Senate immigration law was not headed towards becoming law," he told a questioner at a town hall in Rock Hill, S.C. "Ideally it was headed towards the House, where conservative members of the House were going to make it even better."

Rubio added that the legislation he helped draft as part of a bipartisan team known as the "Gang of 8" was "the best we could do given the fact of who was running the Senate at the time," noting Democrats were in control, "but it was never going to go from there to the president's desk."

At one level, Rubio was just stating the obvious: very few bills passed by either house of Congress make it to the president’s desk without going through some significant changes. As it was poised to pass the Senate, though, Rubio specifically addressed conservative critics of the legislation and told them that while it obviously wasn’t their idea of the perfect immigration bill, it was conservative enough and merited passage. “I realize that in the end, many of my fellow conservatives will still not be able to support this reform,” Rubio said. “But I hope you will understand that I honestly believe it is the right thing for our country. To finally have an immigration system that works, to finally have a fence, more agents and E-Verify, and to finally put an end to de facto amnesty.”

But even if you buy the idea that Rubio envisioned a much more conservative version of the bill emerging from the conference committee, that doesn’t explain why he dropped the issue almost entirely after the bill passed in late June 2013. You’d think that a guy who believed his legislation was the right thing to do and who also believed the House could make it better would be twisting arms and pushing his colleagues to get something passed. But instead, Rubio clammed up and refused to expose himself any further. That August, he made a perfunctory attempt to argue that failure to act on immigration reform would impel Barack Obama to take unilateral action, but by October he was blaming Obama for his own party’s intransigence. And then, just about four months to the day after his bill passed, Rubio gave up on his own bill.

From that point he’s been busily muddying the circumstances of its failure and his own position regarding the bill. His favorite explanation for its failure was that the American people just didn’t trust the federal government enough to get behind the legislation – a nonsense claim that neatly absolves his own colleagues for their role in killing the bill. He’s even tried presenting himself as a Cassandra-like critic of his own legislation, arguing that his warnings about its lax security measures went unheeded. (They were heeded, amendments were passed strengthening border security, and Rubio was satisfied enough to vote “aye.”)

It’s not that difficult a scenario to puzzle out: Rubio overextended himself politically, realized he’d made a huge mistake, and hastily retreated to preserve his future political viability. But now he’s trying to have it as many ways as he wants with regard to his failed immigration legislation. He criticizes it as bad policy, but he also takes credit for it as a tangible accomplishment. “I’ve done more immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did,” he said on NPR last April. “I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats.” That same bill, he now says, was never meant to be a law.

By Simon Maloy

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