MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with talk of immigration reform. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is a leading voice in the reform movement. A Republican and Cuban-American from Miami, Rubio was elected to the Senate with strong support from Tea Party conservatives. He helped introduce an immigration bill in the Senate that would, among other things, tighten border security.
But to the dismay of many in his party, the bill also creates a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, Rubio's challenge now is to convince conservative skeptics that he hasn't betrayed them.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans helped write the bill, but since its introduction, about the only one you see is Marco Rubio. He's appeared on more than a dozen radio talk shows targeting his pitch to some of the bill's most outspoken opponents, conservative Republicans. Here he is on Laura Ingraham's show.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW")
LAURA INGRAHAM: Isn't it reasonable for these conservatives to assume that you've been duped here?
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: No. It isn't, because the fact of the matter is that this bill reflects principles that I issued back in January on immigration reform that were different than the principles the president had laid out. In essence, they've come to our position. We haven't gone to theirs.
ALLEN: That's one of the main concerns of radio talk show hosts, Tea Party activists and conservative bloggers, that Rubio and other Republicans are giving away too much on an issue they believe mostly helps Democrats. After having Rubio on his show, conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh warned of the consequences.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")
RUSH LIMBAUGH: There's no doubt there's a correlation, '86 amnesty and the Republican Party lost California.
ALLEN: Limbaugh's talking about the 1986 immigration reform bill supported by Republicans, including President Reagan, that granted amnesty to nearly three million illegal immigrants. Limbaugh and other conservatives say that amnesty helped spur more illegal immigration and created new Latino voters who helped put California in the Democratic column.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")
LIMBAUGH: And there are legitimate fears that the same thing is going to happen to the country, that Republicans, conservatives, are going to end up just being outnumbered.
ALLEN: Rubio's office has dismissed fears that immigration reform will create a bonanza of new Democrats. Not all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants will become citizens, they say. An even smaller percentage will vote. And the right candidate with a history of doing well with Hispanics, a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio, for example, many Republicans say could do a lot to turn it around.
But for Rubio and other Republicans pushing the immigration bill, the conservative backlash is the immediate problem, and they're doing what they can to tamp it down.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
RUBIO: What we have in place today is de facto amnesty.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Conservative leaders have a plan, the toughest enforcement measure in the history of the United States.
ALLEN: A group called Americans for a Conservative Direction is running ads in Florida, North Carolina, Texas and three other states, and while the pushback from the right against immigration reform is worrying to some Republicans, it's not likely to derail the bill. Some of the best-funded conservative organizations, like Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, are staying out of the fight.
And in the grassroots, Tea Party groups are split over the issue. Within the Republican Party, there are many like Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who says the push for immigration reform just recognizes reality.
REPRESENTATIVE MARIO DIAZ-BALART: I wish we didn't have a Democratically controlled Senate and a Democratic president, but that's the reality. So if we're going to pass legislation to deal with these issues that everybody understands have to be fixed, it's going to have to be a bipartisan bill.
ALLEN: Earlier this month, a group of Tea Party supporters held a protest at Rubio's office in Palm Beach County to express their displeasure with his support for the bill. It was a potentially worrying incident for Rubio. But one of the demonstration's leaders, Jim McGovern, says while they may disagree over this issue, he still likes Rubio.
JIM MCGOVERN: Short of his committing a mortal sin or something like that, in my eyes, I'm still going to be a Rubio supporter.
ALLEN: On the radio talk shows, Marco Rubio's had to answer some tough questions, but has mostly been treated well. In the meantime, Rubio is being praised for his leadership and political courage, qualities that could be important in any future runs, including for president. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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