Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is delivering the GOP’s State of the Union response on Tuesday, is by far the most prominent conservative leader to back a comprehensive immigration reform plan. But as House Republicans grow more nervous about the prospect of adding millions of new voting citizens, one top union leader on the issue is warning that his biggest test is yet to come.
“One thing we know is Marco Rubio is a very good politician, we don’t know if he’s a very good leader,” Ana Avendaño, director of immigration and community action at the pro-reform AFL-CIO, told TPM in an interview on Monday. “That’s what we’ll be finding out: whether he can lead his party to the future or just continue to talk like a politician.”
Immigration reform hit its biggest stumbling block since the election last week, as key House members on the GOP side criticized the concept of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a centerpiece of plans espoused by both the White House and a bipartisan group of senators. Latino groups and other supporters of a comprehensive reform bill have threatened to withhold support for any effort that does not include such a path for the millions of illegal immigrants currently in the Unites States.
Rubio, who signed on to a bipartisan framework in the Senate praised by labor leaders as a strong start to negotiations, has been blitzing right wing media in recent weeks to sell skeptical commentators on the need to provide legal status and eventually citizenship to many of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Labor is not exactly friendly with the tea party icon from Florida, but Avendaño said she was encouraged by his efforts.
“Step one is to get people to just listen,” she said. “I think by virtue of him being all over the airwaves, people are listening. The issue is getting more prominence with that audience and I think that’s a good thing.”
Asked by TPM whether the AFL-CIO could ever back a bill providing legal status for immigrants without potential citizenship, she replied: “We would not.” She added, however, that she did not think the House GOP was “intractable” on the issue, despite their early reluctance, and could be pressured into coming around.
“Something short of citizenship is not going to satisfy the American public - last week they said something crazy like ‘What about citizenship without voting rights?’” Avendaño recalled, laughing loudly. “Really? That’s what the Founding Fathers envisioned?”
In addition to Rubio’s work in the Senate, Avendaño said she was encouraged to hear House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) come out for a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants. While he’s yet to back a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, any move in that direction from Cantor could help give Speaker Boehner more room to maneuver on the issue without fear of a revolt.
“I think it’s a good sign that Eric Cantor has softened his position because Boehner is always going to have that group of very loud tea party voices that will suck up the air,” she said.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.