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Obama's Immigration Move Disrupts Rubio's Dream

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., leaves the stage after speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on May 31 in New York.
Stan Honda
AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., leaves the stage after speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on May 31 in New York.

With a single policy directive last week, President Obama took control of an issue of special importance to Hispanics this election year. Obama announced illegal immigrants younger than 30 who are brought to the U.S. as children and who meet other standards will not be subject to deportation.

That's an important goal of those who support the DREAM Act, a bill long stalled in Congress. The president's action has implications for as many as 800,000 young immigrants — as well as a rising star in the Republican Party.

Before Obama's move, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, was planning to present Congress with his own version of the DREAM Act.

A Surprise Move

Like many so-called Dream Acters — young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — Frida Ulloa says she was taken by surprise by the president's announcement Friday. She says she realized something was up when she was deluged by text messages.

"I turned on the news and I heard the news and I was like, 'Oh my God,' " Ulloa says. "I was so shocked, I was crying."

Ulloa, 23, is a senior at Florida International University in Miami and an illegal immigrant. She came to the U.S. with her parents from Peru when she was 15.

Days after the president's announcement, Ulloa is still excited that after years of meetings and demonstrations, Obama listened to the Dream Acters and removed the threat of deportation.

There are some Hispanics, however, who are critical of the president's decision — none more so than Rubio, a Cuban-American from West Miami.

"I don't think that there's anyone watching this that doubts that it was for political reasons," Rubio said in an appearance on Fox News this week as part of a publicity blitz to promote his new autobiography, An American Son.

For months, Rubio said, he was working to craft a compromise bill that would allow Dream Act kids to stay in America without granting them a path to citizenship.

Out Of Bounds?

That's exactly what Obama accomplished last week.

In doing so, Rubio says, he believes Obama overstepped his constitutional authority. At the same time, Rubio says, the president lessened the chances that Rubio and others in Congress can craft a bipartisan consensus on the DREAM Act and immigration reform.

"He's basically taking a very significant issue that needs to be solved in a long-term way that's measured, reasonable and balanced and deciding by edict, by fiat, basically, to solve it in the short term, which happens to coincide with the November election," Rubio says.

DREAM Act advocate Ulloa says Rubio's response has left her puzzled. Before he was a senator, she says, he told her he would support the DREAM Act. Since then, he has changed his position on the bill. And Ulloa says Rubio's talk about a compromise has gone nowhere.

"He says that he's going to do something, but he hasn't really shown us what he's planning on doing. And to criticize this move, I don't understand it, you know?" Ulloa says.

Falling Short Of The Dream?

With Obama's executive action, Rubio's effort at building a compromise appears dead for now. In some ways, that may let him off the hook. The chances that he'd be able to convince conservative Republicans in an election year to support a bill to help young illegal immigrants was always somewhere between unlikely and impossible.

But there are many in the Republican Party with a lot riding on Rubio and the possibility that he can appeal to Hispanic voters — either as a future leader or on the bottom half of a presidential ticket with Mitt Romney.

Miami political consultant Ana Navarro says Republicans have work to do if they hope to win the Hispanic vote away from Obama.

"What Republicans are going to have to do is focus on immigration and the fact that [Obama] didn't deliver on his entire promise," Navarro says. "He made a promise to give us a diamond ring, and after three-and-a-half years of waiting, and seeing that we were falling out of love with him, he showed up with a cubic zirconium."

Until Friday's announcement, there was lots of evidence that Hispanic voters — who were an important part of Obama's margin of victory four years ago — had lost much of their enthusiasm for the president. A chief concern was the administration's tough deportation policy, as well as its failure to turn around the lagging economy.

A new survey released by the polling group Latino Decisions shows the power of the presidency. With his move to halt certain deportations, the survey shows enthusiasm among Hispanics for Obama has jumped dramatically — more than a 50-point turnaround from earlier in the year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.