Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio continued his attempts to woo his own party on immigration reform tonight, telling 200 GOP activists at a fundraising dinner that failing to pass bipartisan legislation would amount to “de facto amnesty” for people in the country illegally.
Rubio was warmly received at the St. Lucie County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner, although about two dozen protesters outside accused him of supporting amnesty in the legislation that he and other senators in a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” have drafted.
The bill, which Rubio has called a “starting point” that can be amended, would offer a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally if they pay $2,000 in fines and hundreds more in fees and meet income and employment requirements designed to ensure they have resources above 125 percent of the federal poverty line and won’t need to draw on public welfare programs.
Before the dinner, Rubio acknowledged that many Republicans are skeptical of the bill’s provisions to secure the U.S.-Mexico border against illegal crossings. Rubio said the border security provisions will probably have to be strengthened before the bill can pass in the GOP-controlled House.
“I think where we still need to do a little bit of work is on firming up the border security things to ensure that the border security happens,” Rubio said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.
Peter Feaman, the Boynton Beach attorney who is Florida’s Republican national committeeman, said border security remains the biggest concern of base GOP voters. Those voters are inclined to trust Rubio, Feaman said.
“From the grassroots point of view, they know that Sen. Rubio is a grassroots guy, started out as a grassroots candidate, was not the establishment candidate, and I think they’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until the final bill emerges, because it’s still a work in progress,” Feaman said.
“But the number one thing, the message is, you’ve got to secure the borders. After that, everything’s negotiable,” Feaman said.
In his speech, Rubio said failing to pass an immigration bill will leave in place a system that doesn’t prevent people from entering the country illegally and doesn’t keep track of them once they are in the U.S.
“What we have right now is a disaster. What we have right now is a legal immigration system that is broken … We have immigration laws that are not enforced,” Rubio said.
“The greatest challenge we have right now is enforcing the border,” Rubio said. “No one can tell me the first country that landed a man on the moon cannot secure the border of the United States with Mexico.”
He added: “What I hope people will help me figure out, and what we’re trying to work to figure out, is what can we do in the law to ensure that it happens once and for all.”
Rubio said before the dinner that he’s open to amendments and changes to the bill.
“I never pretended that eight senators could come up with a piece of legislation that we could offer to everyone as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” Rubio said.
Before Rubio spoke, members of the group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement protested Rubio’s support for immigration reform.
“I expended shoe leather and time and energy helping Marco Rubio become the senator in Florida and now he’s gone back on his campaign promises on amnesty,” said Ed Bender of Pompano Beach. “You want to call it a path to citizenship … the net result is people get to call themselves citizens on some level, and the reality of it is billions and billions of additional dollars that this country does not have to support new citizens.”
Rubio disputed the idea that the pathway to citizenship in the bill is amnesty.
“When you’re asking someone to pay a $2,000 fine, an application fee, undergo a background check and a national security background check and all the other elements that are involved in this and wait 10 years before they can even apply for a Green Card and not qualify for any federal benefits – when you’re asking someone to go through all of that, that’s not amnesty,” Rubio said in an interview.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.