Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has effectively ruled out granting legal status to undocumented immigrants if he makes it to the White House, even for a second term.
Pressed by conservative host Sean Hannity during a Monday night interview on Fox News, the Florida senator said he's open to a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally, but only a decade or more after passage of bills to secure the border and modernize the legal immigration system.
"I don't think it's a decision you have to make on the front end. The first two things you have to do is stop illegal immigration, then second you have to modernize our legal immigration system, and then third you can have a debate about how to even legalize people to begin with," Rubio said. "And then ultimately in 10 or 12 years you could have a broader debate about how has this worked out and should we allow some of them to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship."
Rubio's comments make explicit the demanding bargain that many in his party are driving. While other Republicans who have taken the secure-the-border-first stance have talked vaguely about taking up the plight of the estimated 11 million people living here illegally sometime after that occurs, the Florida senator is being much more clear about what his plan would mean for them. It means he wants to wait at least a decade after other measures are taken before adopting a legalization program. That's longer than Rubio, who aspires to be the first Hispanic occupant of the White House, would constitutionally have to be president.
Rubio's comments came hours after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, one of the most outspoken skeptics of immigration, dropped out of the White House race, and they could help the Floridian win over the many Republican voters who strongly oppose legalization or citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But if he wins the nomination it could haunt him in the general election by putting him on the wrong side of the Hispanic community, a large and fast-growing voting bloc, which broadly supports a path to citizenship.
The son of Cuban immigrants is feared by many Democratic strategists as arguably the strongest Republican contender to take on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in the general election, in part due to his capacity to reach Latino voters.
"He opposes relief for immigrants who will be relegated to second-class status if he has his way. If elected, Rubio guarantees immigrants zero results and an agenda that is stuck in the past with no hope for the future," said Pablo Manriquez, the director of Hispanic media for the Democratic National Committee.
Rubio's campaign wasn't fazed.
"Marco's principles on immigration reform have not changed," Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant wrote in an e- mail. "It's clear that Democrats do not want to face Marco Rubio in a general election because he represents the future versus the past."
The senator co-wrote a comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to citizenship, which passed the Senate in June 2013. Months later, after the House refused to act on the legislation, Rubio said reform should be broken up and done sequentially, starting with tougher border security. While his view of how to go about it has changed, he has maintained openness to a pathway to citizenship if other steps are taken first.
"I personally have said that I don't want there to be millions of people that are permanently barred from every becoming Americans," Rubio said Monday, adding: "Even though I'm personally open to green cards, that's a debate that we can have down the road after we've seen how the [border security] program has worked."
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