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Rubio Pulled in Two Directions on Immigration

By Miami Herald, Miami Herald - May 31, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A crack is forming in U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s tea party.

Conservative activists — still raw over what they say was his role in blocking illegal immigration legislation while speaker of the Florida House — say the burgeoning Republican star needs to deliver on campaign rhetoric for tougher enforcement.

“We’ve been waiting for him to come up with something and to be a leader on this issue,” said Danita Kilcullen, founder of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale.

When President Barack Obama traveled to Texas recently to call for a renewed immigration debate, Rubio said the borders need to be secured before anything. He demanded action on an employment background check system called E-Verify.

But Rubio has not made an effort to sponsor immigration legislation or even highlight the issue — it is not listed on his website, tea party members note. And he remained on the sidelines as E-Verify was narrowly defeated this month in the Florida Legislature, where Rubio is held in almost holy regard.

Jobs, the national debt and Medicare are dominant themes on Capitol Hill now, not immigration. Still, the flicker of activity, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday upholding part of Arizona’s controversial new law, exposes the pressure and pitfalls facing Rubio.

He is being torn in opposite directions by his base: Washington’s Republican elite and Florida’s grass-roots activists who propelled him into office.

The establishment is eagerly positioning the charismatic 40-year-old son of Cuban exiles as the Hispanic face of the party. The Latino population in the United States has grown 43 times faster than the non-Hispanic white population, rising from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010.

Last week, former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas, now head of the American Conservative Union, boasted in Politico that Rubio’s inclusion on a presidential ticket would “almost guarantee” a GOP victory.

The safe route, then, is to avoid being drawn into a serious immigration debate. “If anything, they’re saying [to Rubio] ‘Let’s not talk about this,’ ” said Patrick Davis, a national Republican consultant. “It motivates Hispanics to look at Democrats and Obama.”

Rubio’s pledge to vote against the Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants, has struck some Hispanics as particularly offensive.

Still, talk is not enough for the other side of Rubio’s base — the conservative activists who provided early momentum for his once long-shot campaign.

“He wants to have it both ways,” said George Fuller of Sarasota, who is aligned with several tea party groups. “We’re going to be zeroing in on him like a laser.”

Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Rubio and other Senate Republicans are letting themselves be held hostage by hard-line anti-immigration forces.

“It requires courage,” said Aguilar, whose group seeks a middle ground. Rubio “would be the ideal person to say ‘I am a strong conservative and I want to work on immigration.’

“But right now he’s not leading on the issue and he’s not clear. That’s a problem.”

Rubio never set himself up as a leader on immigration. Nor for that matter did he see himself as a tea party figure, though he enjoyed the news media attention that came with the label. His Senate campaign focused on fiscal issues and opposing Obama’s health care plan. “Obviously there are important issues that we’re facing on the debt, on the creation of jobs, on gas prices,” Rubio said in an interview. “Those issues should be the ones we’re focused on 100 percent.”

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