This summer’s awkward confrontations between undocumented immigrants and politicians have become the best indicator that Republicans are running away from an immigration reform platform that could include a pathway to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. Whether politicians ranted, berated, avoided, or defended, one thing seems clear: politicians do not want to go off-message from the party’s increasing hostility towards undocumented immigrants. That point was made most clear during a “Faith and Freedom” barbecue event in South Carolina over the weekend when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), previously a big proponent for immigration reform, took five immigration activists to task after they disrupted his speech at the fundraiser for Sen Jeff Duncan (R-SC).
“They’re harming their own cause because you don’t have a right to illegally immigrate into the United States,” Rubio said of immigrants who are crossing the border, as undocumented activists were led out of the fundraiser. In a video provided by the advocacy group United We Dream, the activists took turns shouting at Rubio for wanting to “deport us,” “Sen. Rubio, you don’t stand with Latinos. Latinos stand with DREAMers,” and to stop “flip-flopping with our community.” The crowd erupted in jeers and boos as the group was kicked out of the room. At one point off camera, a man reportedly threatened a fifth activist “clutching his cane as it were a baseball bat.”
Rubio has repeatedly changed his stance to appease both moderate voters and Tea Party supporters who helped put him in the Senate in 2010. Since fighting to pass comprehensive immigration reform as a core member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight, he has cycled through maybe voting against his own bill, urging senators not to endorse his bill, refusing to state whether he supports his own bill, voting for the bill, abandoning the bill, then once again supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
Last year, Rubio insisted that the Senate bill was not amnesty. Even when mothers of DREAMers confronted him, Rubio insisted, “I’m with you guys.” He added, “I am the author of this bill, this proposal. I don’t understand why you keep asking me to commit myself. What more can I commit?” He also sympathized with two DREAMers who confronted him in 2010, noting, “These young people are very brave to be here today.” Since then, he has walked so far away from the Senate bill, that he has suggested shutting down the government if Obama extends deportation relief to more undocumented immigrants.
Rubio is the latest in a string of politicians who are making their real immigration stance known after being pushed into a corner by DREAMers. That is, Rubio and others are taking a hard-line position deeply rooted in an anti-immigration agenda that some are likening to Mitt Romney‘s self-deportation strategy, the idea of making the lives of undocumented immigrants so unbearable that they would want to leave the country.
Both Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) previously supported a way to bring some undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. But when pressed by people whose lives they could potentially affect, they shifted their position to one that will help the optics for the November primary. According to CNN, a Republican operative remarked, “I couldn’t think of a better way to make Rubio look good in South Carolina.” For his part, Paul said that he wouldn’t be berated by DREAMers, but in the same breath supported efforts to help such individuals. And Ryan just flat out wouldn’t respond to DREAMers.
With less than three months left until the November primary, Republicans are still struggling to find the perfect messaging strategy on immigration reform. DREAMers are already jaded. One of the activists Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, Deputy Managing Director with United We Dream said in a press release, “hearing Sen. Rubio’s comments towards us showed that he has completely turned his back on Dreamers, our families and the Latino community. For him to say that … and that we don’t have the right to illegally immigrate to the country,’ goes against what he has said in the past to our community and to myself personally. This makes it clear to the Latino community that we can’t trust him. He will sell us out to highest bidder.”
It remains to be seen whether this strategy will help or hurt Republicans like Rubio in November. In recent polls, at least 76 percent of Floridians disagree with his position, and many Republican voters around the country still list immigration reform as a top priority.