Posted: 01/24/2013 5:44 pm EST | Updated: 01/24/2013 5:49 pm EST
Elise Foley
Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Wednesday that labor unions could kill comprehensive immigration reform unless President Barack Obama and other Democrats are willing to stand up to them on the issue of citizenship and give something less to undocumented immigrants instead.

It's a common trope among Republicans, who claim left-leaning groups are as much to blame as those on the right for past failures on immigration reform. But labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, reject the notion that they will need to cave on the need for a pathway to citizenship -- and Rubio's allegation that it would be their fault if reform efforts fail this time around.

"For Senator Rubio to be attacking unions for standing with immigrant communities, which is what he's essentially doing, is neither just nor the politics that will address the GOP's demographic cliff," said Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO's assistant to the president and director of immigration and community action.

"It's really time for us to stop playing politics with this issue," Avendaño added later. "It's much easier to point the finger at someone than to start doing the really hard work that it's going to take to change the law that so badly needs fixing."

Rubio has said he is working on a plan for immigration reform that would allow undocumented immigrants already living in the country to get a temporary work visa, but not a pathway to citizenship. That would be a major sticking point for many Democrats, nearly all of whom say a pathway is absolutely necessary for reform. And, there are some Republicans, including those leading bipartisan efforts at a bill in the Senate, who seem to agree.

Rubio, though, insisted in an appearance on the Mark Levin radio show that Democrats will have to cave to his plan to give temporary status but no set roadmap for undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

"The labor unions don't like that, and that's going to be a big fight the president is going to have to have if he's really interested in moving this forward," Rubio said. "They’re going to have a decision to make. And that decision is, do they want to play politics with this issue, do they want to get into a bidding war where they continue to move the ball and water it down? Or are they serious about solving it? And if they’re serious about solving it then I think these are the sorts of principles they’d want to support."

It's true that labor groups support a pathway to citizenship as part of immigration reform -- it's one of the top priorities for both AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. AFL-CIO also opposed a comprehensive immigration reform bill led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the mid-2000s.

Avendaño said many things have changed since then, including the politics of reform. After the GOP presidential candidate suffered a devastating defeat among Latino voters, a space has opened for immigration reform, which many consider was mandated, in a sense, by the election results. The AFL-CIO is also hoping a bill this year will not cater to corporations in the same way they felt the McCain-Kennedy bill did, she said.

The AFL-CIO is working with the Chamber of Commerce on immigration issues, and there is a general consensus that a pathway to citizenship is needed. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue said last week that he is open to a number of options, but wants an eventual road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the country.

Kica Matos, director of immigrant and racial justice at the advocacy group Center for Community Change, said in an email that the group appreciates Rubio's efforts on immigration, but that he is wrong on labor's past role in the process of reform.

"Senator Rubio likes to perpetuate the myth that labor has blocked immigration reform in order to shift responsibility from where it truly lies," Matos said. "Immigration reform was killed in 2007 by the far right and the patently racist ranting of conservative talk radio. In 2010, it was blocked by Republican Senators who upheld along party lines a filibuster determined to shield themselves from primary challenges from the far right of their party. Community groups fighting for immigration reform enjoy strong support from and alliance with unions who are fighting every day for a path to citizenship for hardworking immigrants."

Labor Groups: GOP Wrong To Blame Immigration Reform Failures On Unions