Sen. Marco Rubio was the glue that held together the immigration deal in the Senate, helping set the stage for adding tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents to the final deal — but failing to win many of the changes the Florida Republican himself said he needed to see.
The 68-32 vote last week in favor of the bill was a milestone for the Senate and for the immigration debate, but it was even more important for the first-term senator whose political future is inextricably linked with the landmark legislation he helped write and pass.
“I think the debate has been hard for Marco. It’s been a physical strain, an emotional strain, a political strain. Without a doubt, this has not been peaches and cream for Marco,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican Party strategist from Florida and a Rubio ally.
“But I actually think his political stock has gone way up in the sense that he’s achieved something — he’s gotten a major legislative accomplishment under his belt and he’s made a difference in this debate,” she said. “So you now can’t say he’s the Republican Barack Obama — a first-term senator who made great speeches. This guy now can say he was a crucial part of getting a very controversial piece of bipartisan legislation through.”
Mr. Rubio was one of the “Gang of Eight” senators — four Republicans and four Democrats — who wrote the immigration bill and defended it against major changes.
The crux of the deal offers quick legal status and work permits to illegal immigrants, regardless of any border security improvements. But it withholds full citizenship rights until the government adds more agents to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, and creates interior infrastructure such as an entry-exit system at airports and a worker verification system for businesses.
Along the way, Mr. Rubio repeatedly found himself on the defensive against critics who said the bill put “amnesty” first and security second, and others who said the Florida Republican, in his third year in office, was getting snookered by the Democrats with whom he was working to write the bill.
Last week, ahead of the final vote, the chief of the union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents accused the senator of having “misled” him and other law enforcement critics by failing to fix the bill’s problems — problems Mr. Rubio acknowledged.
Debate was ‘real trial’
Responding to his critics, Mr. Rubio delivered a broad floor speech Wednesday saying he got involved in writing the bill because it otherwise wouldn’t have any provisions for border security. He also said the final deal is better than current law, which isn’t being enforced at all.
“Getting to this point has been very difficult. To hear the worry and the anxiety and the growing anger in the voices of so many people who helped me get elected to the Senate, whom I agree with on virtually every other issue, has been a real trial for me,” Mr. Rubio said.
“I realize in the end many of my fellow conservatives will not be able to support this reform,” he said. “But I hope you will understand that I honestly believe it is the right thing to do for this country — to finally have an immigration system that works, to finally have a fence, to finally have more agents and E-Verify, and to finally put an end to de facto amnesty.”
Although he helped sell the bill, which garnered support of 14 of the Senate’s 46 Republican members, he didn’t fare as well in making the changes that he promised he would try to do.
Heading into the debate, Mr. Rubio said he wanted significant changes, including to border security, to the entry-exit system to check visitors’ visas, and to the requirement that newly legalized immigrants show they have learned English before they earn green cards.
Mr. Rubio called the English-language loophole “one of the bill’s shortcomings” and vowed to fix it, and even wrote an amendment to require immigrants to prove English skills, rather than merely sign up for classes, which under the bill is considered acceptable.