Will Rubio's Flip-Flop on Arizona Help His Campaign?

| Thu May 6, 2010 4:28 PM EDT

Marco Rubio was one of a handful of prominent Republicans to criticize the harsh immigration law passed in Arizona in April. But the Florida Republican Senate hopeful and Tea Party darling is now swinging in support of it. Rubio says that the recent amendments to the legislation, which Arizona lawmakers approved last week, convinced him to change his mind. “The second one that passed hit the right note,” he tells conservative news site Human Events:

I mean no one is in favor of a bill that would force American citizens to have to interact with law enforcement in a way that wasn’t appropriate. And the first bill I thought held that door open.

Since then, the changes that have been made to the bill I think greatly improve it. Understand that what Arizona is facing is different from anything Florida has ever faced. Arizona has a physical border with Mexico. And there is kidnappings, human trafficking, drug wars coming across that border into an American city. Frankly, very few states in the country can imagine what that’s like.

Rubio, who was born in Miami to Cuban exiles, had originally opposed the law for putting law enforcement officers “in an incredibly difficult position” and warning that it could “unreasonably single out people who are here legally, including many American citizens.” Critics from across the political spectrum shared his concerns. And the amendments that were passed last week responded to some of this early blowback, as well as a number of lawsuits filed in response to the measure. One of the changes specified that law enforcement could only ask about immigration status while enforcing some other state or local ordinance, as opposed any form of "lawful contact" with an authority. Another tweaked language to try to strengthen the law’s prohibition against racial profiling.

If Rubio is truly concerned about the damaging impact the law could have on law enforcement, Latinos, and other Arizona citizens, not much has changed. The amendments passed have helped dampen some of the fears that police would interrogate victims or witnesses of crimes about their immigration status, deterring them from coming forward. Nevertheless, the revised Arizona law still gives the police broad, unprecedented authority to single out suspected illegal immigrants. An offense as minor as having “cars on blocks in the yard”--an example proferred by lawyer Kris Kobach, one of the law's authors--could give overzealous police officers an excuse to single out suspected illegal immigrants. And the law would still allow racial profiling to occur, one University of Arizona law professor tells CNN. "The law still allows the consideration of race as a factor."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The amendments certainly give leading Republicans like Rubio—as well as more conservative Democrats—the cover to soften their opposition or come out in favor of the law. Rubio, in fact, has never endeared himself to Latinos on immigration, having long denounced a path to legalization as “amnesty.” He repeated such criticisms in his Human Events interview. “[I]f you provide a path for people to enter this country illegally and if they stay here long enough and pay enough in taxes, well let them stay legally...why would anyone come in through the legal process?”

By resorting to a hard-line stance once again, Rubio could be trying to gin up his conservative base in light of Republican Governor Charlie Crist’s decision--shortly after the Arizona law’s initial passage--to run as an independent. Crist has bounced back from dismal showings in the GOP primary against Rubio to gain a slight edge in the general election. And though high-profile opposition to the Arizona law has been growing, recent polls have also shown that, among those familiar with the Arizona measure, more Americans support the law than oppose it. By running against the Arizona law, Rubio may be trying to improve his short-term electoral prospects—and could convince other  GOP opponents of the legislation to switch sides, too.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.