BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — "If you are elected president, what is my pathway towards citizenship?"
That might not be a question Sen. Marco Rubio expected to face at a forum sponsored by the conservative Yellowhammer News on a university campus here.
But that's exactly what happened Saturday afternoon when Fernanda Herrera, the chief of staff to the Student Government Association president at Samford University, stood to ask the event's final question.
Republican primary voters, particularly in states with conservative bases such as Alabama, generally oppose President Barack Obama's executive actions to defer action against undocumented immigrants who came to America as children, the very category that Herrera fits.
"I don't know your particular story, but many people are brought to this country as young children. They don't even know they're in this country illegally by their parents until they try to go to college," Rubio said. "I know people who have lived in this country their whole life. They don't even speak another language. So, if they were sent to another country, they wouldn't even know how to function there."
Rubio then said that while he believes the vast majority of Americans would seek to address that particular issue reasonably, his actions on immigration as president would be bound by the Constitution.
"And what the president has done with deferred action violates the Constitution of the United States," Rubio said, citing earlier statements by Obama about the limits of legal authority, but without offering a direct answer about what Herrera's chances for citizenship might be.
The exchange, and one a few minutes before with Cliff Sims, editor-in-chief of the Yellowhammer News and moderator of the event, underscore the tensions Rubio faces on immigration. The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio worked with a group of senators in 2013 to develop an immigration package, but then distanced himself from the results.
Sims asked Rubio about his disagreement over federal immigration policy with home state Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who was strongly opposed the package developed by the so-called "gang of eight."
Rubio responded that all along, even when working with the group of senators, his goal was to shift the package as far to the right as could be reasonably accomplished within a Senate where Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada ran the floor. Rubio's argument is that a GOP-led House would have presented a more conservative alternative to the bill that did pass the Senate.
Of course, the dynamics have shifted even in three short years.
"The truth of the matter is: what we learned from 2013 is it doesn't matter how tough you make the immigration enforcement measures. If you don't do it first, and people don't see that it happened, they don't trust that it will happen." Rubio said. "Because they've been told that before, and it didn't happen."
On the stage on the campus of Samford University Saturday, the complexity of the issue that can be too easily lost in campaign talking points became very real.
The Yellowhammer News had previously said presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would also attend the forum, but his schedule changed.
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