Immigration issue took Rubio, Martinez on different paths

By WILLIAM MARCH | The Tampa Tribune
Published: February 02, 2013


Two Republican U.S. senators from Florida have stood at the center of one of the most contentious national debates in recent history — immigration reform.

One, former Sen. Mel Martinez, consistently favored a comprehensive reform bill with a path to earned citizenship for illegal residents.

The result: He was castigated by his party as an advocate of "amnesty" and is now out of politics.

The other, Sen. Marco Rubio, has flipped 180 degrees on the issue — at least according to critics. Formerly a staunch opponent, he's the leading GOP advocate of a pathway to legal status today.

The result: He's now a front-runner for the GOP nomination for president in 2016.

Their fates are a lesson in how and why politicians bend with the wind.

"The climate has changed," said Miami-based GOP political strategist Ana Navarro, a supporter and occasional adviser to both.

"The presidential election in 2012 was a huge wakeup call for the GOP on its need to do more outreach to Hispanics. Mel himself would be the first to tell you that Marco Rubio is a rock star to the Republican base and has got credibility and room to maneuver that very few other senators do."

Rubio, who's now getting a mild taste of the vituperation Martinez once faced from the conservative wing of the party, denies he's changed his position on the 11 million illegal immigrants now estimated to be in the country.

In an email, spokesman Alex Conant said Rubio still opposes "a special or alternative pathway to citizenship" for illegal immigrants.

A "Gang of 8" senators including Rubio, who proposed "principles" for reform legislation last week, advocated providing legal status, not citizenship, Conant said. Eventually, those legalized "will only gain access to the regular immigration system" to seek citizenship.

Rubio also says he'll only support legislation with a "trigger" mechanism so those who gain legal status can't apply for citizenship until an independent commission verifies that border security has been established.

But in the past, Rubio ruled out any form of "legalization" including "back of the line" programs, saying they would make it impossible to enforce immigration laws.
* * * * *

The two Floridians' careers are intertwined, starting with their shared roots in the GOP-leaning Cuban immigrant community. That forced both into the debate.

But Rubio had another constituency: He came to prominence as a tea party champion. That meant he had to thread the needle on immigration, appealing both to immigrant advocates and hard-line conservatives.

He has danced between the two sides on issues ranging from official English to legalization for "Dreamers" — children brought here illegally by their parents.

Martinez's ambition in the early 2000s was to be governor.

But at the urging of President George W. Bush, who wanted a Hispanic name on the ballot for his 2004 re-election, Martinez instead ran for the Senate in 2004. He also reluctantly acceded to Bush's urging to become national Republican Party Chairman in 2006.

In his 2004 campaign, Martinez said he opposed amnesty, but he also said a path to legalization wasn't amnesty.

"We should have a way for those that are here that are working to regularize their status … not with amnesty, which I don't agree with," Martinez said in an October 2004 debate.

In the Senate, he supported pathway legislation by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy and sponsored his own. That drew blistering attacks from the right.

"It wasn't the size of the group, it was the level of hostility," Martinez said. "Anytime one of the (conservative) talk show hosts highlighted my role in this, we'd get inundated with phone calls. Some were quite rude.

"I was very disheartened by that and it did get personal, given that I am an immigrant myself."

Martinez' approval ratings plunged as low as 27 percent. Critics mailed him bricks, suggesting the need for a border wall. One staffer took the bricks home to build a patio.
* * * * *

Martinez continued his support for pathway legislation even after McCain, seeking to placate the right during his 2008 presidential primary campaign, declared in a televised debate that he no longer supported his own bill, leaving backers like Martinez hanging.

The losing battle contributed to Martinez's decision to leave his Senate seat early, he said.

"There was such a lack of political courage around me — people who agreed with me told me I was doing the right thing but didn't have the courage to say it publicly," he said.


In 2008, Martinez announced he wouldn't run for re-election in 2010, but he said he'd serve out his term. In August 2009, however, he resigned for a lucrative lobbying job. He's now Florida, Caribbean and Central America chief for JPMorgan Chase bank.

"As far as my name going on a ballot again, I doubt that will happen," he said.

He isn't bitter, even about McCain's defection — even though McCain has now circled back again, joining the Gang of 8.

When McCain backed away from his own bill, "He was running for president and chose to focus on border security," Martinez said. "I accepted that OK."

Rubio, he said, is responding to the times and political reality.

"Today is different. A lot has been done to secure the border, whether people believe it or not, and we have about zero migration from Mexico," he said.

"Then we've had a couple of election cycles where it's become very obvious that the Republican Party's viability is dependent on getting beyond this issue."

In yet another irony, Martinez's resignation cleared Rubio's path to the Senate.
* * * * *

Then a little-known former state House speaker, Rubio challenged the seemingly invincible Gov. Charlie Crist in a primary for the seat Martinez left open. Crist was becoming alienated from the right wing, and Rubio appealed to the tea party movement as an immigration hard-liner.

Rubio blasted Crist in a Fox News debate in March 2010 for backing McCain's bill.

"He would have voted for the McCain plan," Rubio said. "If you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do, in any form, whether it's back of the line or so forth, you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works."

In an interview with conservative blogger Javier Manjarres, Rubio added, "I am not, and I will never support any effort to grant blanket legalization/amnesty" to illegal immigrants.

Rubio's views hadn't always been hard-line.

As a state legislator, he supported in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants.

As House speaker in 2008, with the power to advance or stall legislation, he declined to push bills opposed by his Hispanic colleagues that would have cracked down on illegal immigrants. This included requiring law enforcement and government agencies to use federal citizenship verification. The bills died in committee.

In his Senate campaign, Rubio favored making English the nation's official language — but he added that government services and documents should continue to be available in other languages.

In the Senate, Rubio again found himself caught between his Hispanic heritage and the tea party over so-called "Dreamers" — young people brought to the U.S. by their families illegally but involuntarily as children. Many now cannot apply for college admission or jobs and face deportation to "home" countries they know nothing about.

Conservatives had criticized the Democrat-backed DREAM Act, designed to help them, as a form of amnesty, stoking Hispanic anger. Rubio announced he would propose a Republican alternative but never produced one.

Critics don't accept Rubio distinctions between past pathway proposals and the Gang of 8's principles.

"This plan is warmed over McCain-Kennedy and will do nothing to solve the problem," wrote influential conservative blogger Eric Erickson of

On conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham's show, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., another tea party hero, professed admiration for Rubio but called him "amazingly naοve on this issue" and said the Gang of 8 proposal is "ridiculous."
* * * * *

Despite the trigger mechanism, "As soon as you give them a legal status they are here legally forever and probably they're citizens pretty darn soon thereafter," he said.

In response, Rubio made the round of conservative talk shows this week, winning over some critics — including Rush Limbaugh, but not others.

Navarro, the GOP strategist, said Rubio will avoid Martinez's fate because of his credibility with the GOP base.

The critics, she said, "are anti-everything, and their rhetoric is increasingly out of step and isolated within the Republican Party. They are a vocal minority that won the last time but won't win this time." (813) 259-7761