Marco Rubio is now at the point in his post-announcement media blitz when he's answering questions about previous post-announcement interviews. During an appearance on Fox News' "The Kelly File" on Tuesday, host Megyn Kelly asked the Florida Republican about his comment to NPR's "Morning Edition" that he's "done more on on immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did." Kelly argued that might not endear him to the conservative voters who didn't like the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill.
"My broader point," he said, "was, in terms of using immigration against us in a general election, I don't think they're going to be able to use that against us successfully."
Some Hispanic outreach and advocacy groups would tend to agree with him. For groups on the right in particular, Rubio's high profile role in helping usher the reform bill through the Senate outweighs his later pivot towards piecemeal reform and emphasizing the need for border security as the bill languished in the House. For them, it was more of a reassessment than a flip flop.
"I would not use the words 'back up,'" Adryana Boyne, the national director of the conservative Hispanic outreach group VOCES Action, said in an interview. "I would say that he saw the reaction and listened to constituents and Americans who were reluctant to have comprehensive immigration reform."
At the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative, Koch-backed, anti-Obamacare group, executive director Daniel Garza said that Rubio is still for everything that was in the reform bill. "But where he changed was he no longer trusted this president to execute and abide by what the Congress would approve in legislation," he said. "I guess what he’s saying is 'I trust myself to execute immigration policy—not Barack Obama.'"
The argument that Rubio has done more than Clinton on immigration also holds weight for Hispanic activists. On the right, that's largely thanks to a general sense that Clinton has no accomplishments. “I not only agree with that, I would add to that: Can someone mention one single issue that Mrs. Clinton has done in the last 25 years? Because nothing comes to my mind,” Boyne said of Rubio’s Clinton remarks.
But the idea that Clinton will have to earn credibility on immigration has traction on the left as well. Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens—a Hispanic civil rights group that supports issues like Obamacare, the Medicaid expansion, and Common Core—said that left-leaning immigration activists who argue that Rubio turned his back on immigrants should point out that President Bill Clinton signed off on “some of the worst anti-immigrant legislation in a generation,” including the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act.
“To try to compare and contrast Rubio’s record with Hillary Clinton on the immigration question and pretend that Hillary’s going to win that fight outright, I think, is a mistake,” Wilkes said.
President Bill Clinton passed three Republican-backed immigration bills that, among other things, made it easier to deport people for small crimes committed in their youths and harder for spouses to get green cards. Lynn Tramonte at America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform group that supported the 2013 reform bill, called the period the “Dark Ages” of the immigration reform debate. “The politics of immigration have completely changed since the mid-1990s,” she said.
As for the Clinton who is still eligible to run for office, Tramonte said that she has a good voting record on immigration—she supported comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act during her time in the Senate—but she also hasn’t been vocal about "whether she understands that leaning into immigration reform [is] the right way forward for her candidacy ... I think she will, but it’s still an open question."
Clinton has had a bumpy history on immigration questions, most memorably on whether undocumented immigrants should receive drivers licenses. In June 2014 she said the large numbers of unaccompanied child migrants entering the country illegally over the summer "should be sent back." During the 2014 midterm election season Clinton was confronted by DREAMers, beneficiaries of Obama’s immigration executive order for children brought into the U.S. illegally, about her stance on the president’s executive orders. During another confrontation she said the country needs to "elect more Democrats." She later tweeted in favor of DAPA, the immigration executive order Obama proposed in 2014 to address the immigrant parents of lawful U.S. citizens and permanent residents:
While Tramonte wasn't certain what Clinton planned to do on immigration as president, she was convinced that Rubio won't back a comprehensive bill and he won't support Obama's positions on immigration orders, despite their overwhelming popularity with Hispanics. Rubio has said he would eventually phase out DACA, the executive order for people brought into the country illegally as children, if he were president.
"He’s afraid of that issue in a way that shows a real lack of leadership and pandering to the lowest common denominator in his party,” she said. "[Clinton] still has to say a lot more about where she stands and what she’ll do as president, but Rubio has been pretty clear about where he stands and what he won’t do."
Rubio is also becoming clear about how he will shape his role in immigration reform—his biggest weakness, but also the closest he's come to having a major legislative accomplishment in the Senate. At the very least, he's shown that he's the lesser of 16 evils when it comes to immigration reform.
"At some point you can’t just buck the party entirely," Wilkes said. "But I think Rubio did enough to warrant praise and to understand that, if he was the commander in chief, he’s going to approach the immigration question with a lot more compassion and understanding than most of his colleagues."