What's Behind Rubio's 'Full Circle Back' On Immigration? : It's All Politics Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., appears to have reversed his views on an earned path to citizenship, which in a Tea Party-backed 2010 campaign he called "code for amnesty." Some critics say the young Cuban-American lawmaker seems to be looking ahead to 2016 and a possible White House bid.

What's Behind Rubio's 'Full Circle Back' On Immigration?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We have two stories now about how Republicans are approaching the complicated issue of immigration. First, the party's big name on the topic, Marco Rubio. He's only been a senator for two years, but he's already considered a likely presidential contender and his star rose higher this week when he joined a bipartisan group of senators offering a path to citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants.

As NPR's David Welna reports, it's the latest in a series of shifts on immigration by Rubio.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When Marco Rubio ran for Senate as a Tea Party-backed conservative, he rejected a so-called earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Here he is on CNN in October 2010.


WELNA: But Rubio's no longer calling it amnesty. Here he is this week, touting the bipartisan Senate group's earned path to citizenship.

: This allows people the access to make their status at this moment legal if they meet certain benchmarks and, ultimately, to have access to the regular opportunity anybody else in the world would have to get a green card. And obviously, once you have a green card, you're three to five years away from becoming a citizen.

WELNA: In a brief interview, Rubio says his reason for joining the bipartisan effort is simple.

: It's important for our country. It's important for Florida. And I just want us to handle it in a way that's permanent and responsible.

WELNA: Others smell political opportunism. For Rollins College political scientist Richard Foglesong, a fellow Floridian, Rubio has the adaptive skills of a chameleon.

RICHARD FOGLESONG: He appears to be different things to different people. And if one looks back over his career, he's done a pretty good job of being what it is that people want him to be.

WELNA: But another Florida political observer sees Rubio going back to his roots on immigration. Steve Schale is a Democratic consultant who watched Rubio's career in the state legislature.

STEVE SCHALE: When Marco was in the Florida House, he was what you consider to be progressive today on immigration issues. He fought for things like in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants. In a lot of ways, I think this is Rubio making the full circle back to where he was on these issues 10 years ago.

WELNA: Rubio's move may also give conservatives needed political cover to hop on the immigration reform bandwagon. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, who's part of the bipartisan group, welcomes his fellow Republican.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think he'll be a great voice on immigration reform. He's a good solid conservative, rising star in our party. I think it will help our chances of success greatly.

WELNA: But an immigration overhaul with a path to citizenship can be a tough pill to swallow for many conservatives. Emory University political scientist Merle Black says it's also a big risk for Rubio.

MERLE BLACK: What Rubio's done is to put himself in a position where he has to explain his position, and he'll have to do this over and over again.


WELNA: Rubio's waged a charm offensive all this week with conservative talk show hosts. He told Rush Limbaugh that since Democrats are pushing for immigration changes, conservatives had to be in the mix as well.


WELNA: Limbaugh seemed charmed.


WILLIAM GHEEN: Marco Rubio, you will never be president of the United States of America.

WELNA: That's William Gheen, president of the advocacy group Americans for Legal Immigration. He feels betrayed by Rubio.

GHEEN: Trying to stand up for illegal alien invaders instead of American citizens is a campaign killer, and Marco Rubio's name is now synonymous with a Republican turncoat trying to push amnesty for illegal immigrants.

WELNA: Such pushback, says Democratic consultant Schale, should not surprise Rubio.

SCHALE: He's a pretty bright guy. I think he understands the risk he's taking here. But he's also ambitious, and I'm sure he's made the calculation that along the road, this is the right place to be.

WELNA: Much may depend on how many of Rubio's fellow conservatives think it's the right place to be.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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