Sitting on top of the Republican party’s wish list for vice president, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday stepped into an issue roiling the 2012 primary, retreating from his past support for tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants.
As a state lawmaker, Rubio co-sponsored legislation in 2003 and 2004 that would have allowed the children of undocumented workers to pay in-state tuition at Florida universities. The bill, which never passed, was modeled after a 2001 Texas law signed by Gov. Rick Perry.
In an interview at the Washington Ideas Forum, Rubio distanced himself from the Florida bill and by extension, from the issue that has at partly cost Perry his lead in the highly volatile Republican presidential primary.
“As a general rule, people in the United States who are here without documentation should not benefit from programs like in-state tuition,’’ Rubio said in response to a question from National Journal congressional correspondent Major Garrett. “We are a nation of laws. If you’re here in violation of the laws, you shouldn’t benefit from these programs.’’
Rubio’s remarks resembled the position taken by Perry’s leading rival, Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts vetoed tuition assistance for illegal immigrants’ children.
Asked about his interest in the vice presidency at the forum, Rubio said he does not see his job as a stepping stone and would turn down any offers.
“I’m focused on my job right now, and the answer is probably going to be no, the answer is going to be no,’’ he said. Yet his modified position on the tuition breaks suggests he is carefully positioning himself on the national stage at a time when polls show most Republicans disagree with the Texas law. As the telegenic son of Cuban exiles, with a fluent conservative message and a powerful connection to the Hispanic community -- the fastest-growing part of the electorate -- Rubio is considered a rising star in the GOP.
Supporters of the Texas law suggested Tuesday that Rubio has political motives in repositioning himself on the tuition breaks, dismissing his insistence that he’s not jockeying for the national ticket.
“He doesn’t want the political wound that has been inflicted on Perry to be inflicted on himself,’’ said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, a non-partisan group that registers Hispanic voters. “He’s ducking incoming fire.’’
Juan Zapata, the former Republican lawmaker who was the chief sponsor of the failed legislation in Florida, said, “Marco Rubio as a state representative would have given a different answer. Now that he’s a national player, he’s operating in that context and trying to protect his own interests.’’
As one of only three Hispanic Republicans elected statewide in the country, Rubio knows that his remarks on immigration will be closely scrutinized. “I think (the issue) is a very powerful political weapon,’’ he said.
Rubio said the question of tuition breaks “gets tricky’’ and suggested it would be unfair to deport an 18-year-old who was brought to the U.S. illegally years ago, has been raised here and wants to attend college. At the same time, Rubio declined to detail any specific exceptions to the Florida bill he co-sponsored or to the Texas law.
“As the years go on, and the immigration issue goes unresolved and people feel like we’re not addressing the issue in a serious way, the ability to carve our narrow exceptions for folks like that has gotten harder and harder,’’ he said. “In the state of Florida, we tried to find a way to accommodate that without rewarding lawbreaking, without creating a magnet for people to do that.’’
Rubio had started to qualify his support for tuition breaks last week, when National Journal asked his Senate office about the issue. In a statement from a spokesman, Rubio said he would support the assistance for “a limited number of young people who were brought here by their parents as young children and have worked hard, exhibited good moral character, and want to contribute to our nation's future in a meaningful way.’’ The legislation in Florida was championed by Rubio’s one-time mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who told National Journal last week it was “fair policy.’’
Rubio was also asked at the forum about a newly upheld Alabama law that allows local police to question people about their immigration status during routine stops. The New York Times reported widespread absences by Hispanic children in the public schools as immigrant families have fled the state.
“I think states have a right to do these sorts of policies that may touch upon immigration. I don’t think that’s the best way to do it,’’ Rubio said. “I’ve consistently said I believe immigration has to be addressed at the federal level in order to be solved.’’
Rubio declined to talk about a dispute between him and the Spanish-language television network, Univision, over a report about his brother-in-law’s former drug use. Several presidential candidates have said they will boycott a proposed Univision debate because of the allegations that the network tried to bully Rubio into an interview in exchange for more favorable coverage.
Back in 2007, when the presidential candidates were slow to commit to a proposal from Univision to host the first presidential primary debate in Spanish, then-state lawmaker Rubio said, “You’re asking candidates to debate in front of a Hispanic audience, and not to do so would be a disservice.’’
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