One of the reasons Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is seen as a viable challenger to whomever the Democrats nominate for the 2016 presidential race is that as a Hispanic and the son of immigrants, he appeals to two demographic groups the GOP has struggled to reach for more than a generation.
A fluent Spanish speaker and the winner of a statewide election in the all-important general election state of Florida, Rubio is seen by many as having the potential to be a breakthrough candidate for the GOP when it comes to reaching out to the fastest-growing group of voters in the country.
So it was odd that on Wednesday Rubio appeared to declare himself open to lifting protections currently sheltering more than half a million young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.
According to Bloomberg, Rubio made the remarks after an appearance at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, where he is campaigning in advance of that state’s primary election.
He was asked about the Obama administration’s Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allows individuals brought into the country illegally as minors to go to school and work in the country they have grown up in without fear that they will be rounded up and deported.
It’s a program that Rubio had previously said would have to end eventually, but with the caveat that a broad immigration reform bill would have to be passed first – a position that has earned him the anger of many in the Republican base, who view any relaxation or forbearance related to the enforcement of immigration laws as an unacceptable form of “amnesty.”
On Wednesday, Rubio appeared to modify his position to bring him more in line with the hard right members of his party. DACA “will have to end at some point,” he said, adding that in an ideal world that would be preceded by the passage of immigration reform.
However, he said, even if Congress doesn’t pass a reform bill, “it will end. It cannot be the permanent policy of the United States.”
“What this really shows is that the Republicans continue to lurch further to the right on immigration,” said Mario Carrillo, spokesperson for United We Dream, a group representing immigrant youth in the U.S.
“To be clear, what Sen. Rubio is advocating is deporting Dreamers,” he said. “This is definitely something different from what we’ve heard from him before, but not a surprise given that he has backed away from immigration issues in the past. He has proven himself to be turning his back on the immigrant community.”
Rubio’s move toward a harsher stance on immigration is the byproduct of a difficult choice facing candidates hoping to earn the Republican nomination for president in 2016. In many cases, the stances needed to win over the primary electorate – which is not only more conservative than the electorate as a whole, but also more conservative than the Republicans likely to vote in 2016 – are not stances designed to expand the GOP’s appeal in the general election.
This isn’t the first time that Rubio has had to backpedal on immigration. After supporting a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the last Congress, he came under withering fire from conservatives who characterized him as soft on illegal immigration and withdrew his support.
And that erstwhile support of immigration reform has haunted him into the primary campaign. Rubio’s comments in New Hampshire came just a day after candidate Donald Trump, whose aggressively anti-immigrant rhetoric has propelled him into the top ranks of GOP contenders, warned his millions of Twitter followers that “Marco Rubio would keep Barack Obama’s executive order on amnesty intact.”