Rubio — telegenic son of Cuban exiles and potential vice presidential pick — is pulling together a bill that would allow young illegal immigrants to remain in the United States but denies them citizenship, an initial step in the drawn-out, divisive fight over immigration policy and the fate of the 11 million people here illegally.
The freshman senator calls his evolving legislation a conservative alternative to the DREAM Act — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors measure. That Democratic-backed bill, which is overwhelmingly popular with Hispanics, would provide a pathway to citizenship to children in the United States illegally if they attend college or join the military. The measure came close to passage in December 2010 but has languished since then.
"We have to come up with an immigration system that honors both our legacy as a nation of laws and also our legacy as a nation of immigrants," Rubio told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
An immigration plan from Rubio, the GOP's best-known Hispanic, could help Republicans make some headway with the fastest growing minority group and its 21 million eligible voters, many concentrated in the contested presidential battleground states of Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.
Democrats maintain a significant political advantage with Hispanics, numbers that were only strengthened by the harsh rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates in this year's primary. Hispanics overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama over Republican presidential nominee John McCain, 67-31 percent, in the 2008 presidential race and they favored Democratic congressional candidates 60-38 percent in 2010, according to exit polling. A Pew Research Center survey out Tuesday showed Obama with a solid edge over Romney among Hispanic registered voters, 67-27 percent.
It's a reality the likely Republican presidential nominee clearly recognizes.
"We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," Romney told a private fundraiser in Florida on Sunday in which he insisted the GOP needs an alternative to the DREAM Act. He warned that a significant number of Hispanics backing Obama "spells doom for us," according to NBC News.
Rubio, who notably called on his party to tone down the anti-immigrant talk earlier this year, is working on a plan that would allow young illegal immigrants who came to the United States with their parents to apply for non-immigrant visas. They would be permitted to stay in the country to study or work, could obtain a driver's license but would not be able to vote. They later could apply for residency, but they would not have a special path to citizenship.
Rubio said he has not talked to the Romney campaign about his plan but definitely would. "He's our nominee and I think it's important for him to feel comfortable with and be supportive of whatever endeavor we pursue," the senator said.
The 40-year-old freshman lawmaker is looking at unveiling his bill in the coming weeks. The early outlines have drawn interest and skepticism from pro-immigration groups. Rubio's political motivation also has been questioned, especially since congressional Republicans and Democrats say legislation as ambitious as immigration is unlikely to be done seven months from the election.
"Is this really a legislative initiative or a political ploy?" asked Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "If it's about a political ploy, it's about throwing a lifeline to Romney, rather than throwing a lifeline to the dreamers."
Joaquin Castro, a Democratic member of the Texas legislature and a candidate for the U.S. House, said Rubio must be troubled by the GOP anti-immigrant talk.
"It must be difficult for a Hispanic Republican to sit there and listen to all of the harsh rhetoric coming from the Republican Party about his community," Castro said in an interview.
Rubio insists that Democrats, who controlled the White House, Senate and House for two years and never completed immigration legislation, are "just panicked about the prospects of losing this issue as a campaign tool."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled Tuesday that Rubio's effort has little chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate, telling reporters that he won't accept an alternative that stops short of providing a path to citizenship.
Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said if it's Rubio's bill or nothing, "I think we would have to look pretty hard at the offer because the most important thing for these students, at least initially, is for them to get right with the law and get on with their lives." But Wilkes cautioned against creating an apartheid-like system in the United States with a permanent group of second-class individuals.
President Barack Obama challenged the GOP for opposing changes to immigration while Rubio works on an alternative.
"Somehow Republicans want to have it both ways. That looks like hypocrisy to me," the president said in an interview last week with Telemundo News.
Rubio faces a major obstacle in pushing his measure. The Republican Party and its allies remain fiercely divided over immigration policy, a split even more pronounced in an election year.
Moderates who favor a route to citizenship are pitted against lawmakers who want tough laws cracking down on illegal immigrants. The agriculture industry, which relies heavily on illegal immigrants, and its GOP backers in Congress have challenged Republican legislation in the House requiring employers to use an electronic database to determine whether a new worker is legal, commonly known as e-verify. Businesses fear it will be an unnecessary regulation while tea partyers worry about government intrusion.
Opponents of Rubio's work-in-progress already have appealed to their rank-and-file members to contact the senator and express their opposition.
Numbers USA, which wants to reduce the number of legal and illegal immigrants, provided talking points to their nearly 1 million members.
"It is downright appalling that you are working on a DREAM Act amnesty. There is no difference between giving illegal aliens citizenship and giving them an amnesty. They would still be able to compete against unemployed Americans for jobs! You need to drop this plan presto!" the group said.
Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, said the bill was "just a slower motion amnesty than the DREAM Act that was defeated in December 2010."
"For the pro-amnesty, open borders crowd, the DREAM (Act) is their most compelling case," Beck said in an interview. "So what you've got is some Republicans who feel like somehow they'd like to take that off the table. And frankly if Rubio were to put one of these things out there, and then it's the Democrats that kill it, it could potentially hurt the Democrats."
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who has led the fight for the DREAM Act for the past decade, said Republicans once backed his measure.
"It's really sad," the Illinois senator said. "When I first offered the DREAM Act, we had more than a dozen Republicans support it. In fact, it was a bill I co-sponsored with Sen. (Orrin) Hatch, but it has become so political over the years."