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Rubio's troubling immigration flip-flop

By Ruben Navarrette, Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette used to admire Marco Rubio, who challenged Gov. Crist in Florida election
  • But, Navarrette says, Rubio's flip-flop on Arizona's immigration law changed his mind
  • Rubio opposed the law as racial profiling, now backs amended version, Navarrette says
  • Navarrette says amendments are cosmetic at best; Rubio gullible or blinded by ambition

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to

San Diego, California (CNN) -- For much of this election season, I saw a lot to admire in Marco Rubio. I liked the independence and courage he showed in going against the Republican Party establishment by challenging Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race in Florida. And when Rubio was viciously and unfairly attacked by presumptuous white liberals for not being authentically Latino, I liked him even more.

And now? Not so much.

It's all because of how Rubio bungled his reaction to an Arizona law that -- despite supporters' assurances that it won't lead to racial and ethnic profiling -- is certain to lead to racial and ethnic profiling. In true Kerryesque fashion, Rubio was against the law before he was in favor of it.

As the intelligent, charismatic and well-spoken son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio rose through the ranks quickly to become speaker of the Florida Assembly before taking on Crist for the GOP Senate nomination. Rubio had not only vanquished Crist's nomination hopes but, in effect, ran him out of the party. The governor is now running for the Senate as an independent, against both Rubio and presumptive Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek.

In fact, things were going smoothly for Rubio until Arizonans passed a law intended to deputize state and local police officers to act as surrogate immigration agents. The idea behind SB 1070 is to round up as many illegal immigrants as possible by requiring that police check the immigration status of people with whom they come in contact if officers have "reasonable suspicion" to believe that the person is the country illegally -- whether police want to or not.

Despite the fact that the law is enormously popular with the GOP base, Rubio rightly opposed it as overly broad and flat-out dangerous. Just a few weeks ago, he said in a statement:

"States certainly have the right to enact policies to protect their citizens, but Arizona's policy shows the difficulty and limitations of states trying to act piecemeal to solve what is a serious federal problem. From what I have read in news reports, I do have concerns about this legislation. While I don't believe Arizona's policy was based on anything other than trying to get a handle on our broken borders, I think aspects of the law, especially that dealing with 'reasonable suspicion,' are going to put our law enforcement officers in an incredibly difficult position. It could also unreasonably single out people who are here legally, including many American citizens. Throughout American history and throughout this administration we have seen that when government is given an inch it takes a mile."

Rubio was right to be concerned. SB 1070 is such a deeply flawed piece of legislation that it had to be amended a week after it was signed. Supporters say the changes prevent racial and ethnic profiling. Now, police officers can prowl for illegal immigrants only in the course of enforcing some other law or ordinance. In the original version, all that was required was "lawful contact."

Another change is that now, the state attorney general or a county attorney cannot investigate complaints based on a person's race, color or national origin. The original law allowed for race, color and national origin to be considered as one of several factors and only prohibited law enforcement from focusing "solely" on those characteristics.

That was good enough for Rubio, who now says he backs the controversial law as amended. Apparently, his concerns about racial profiling have been assuaged.

Glad to hear it. Trouble is, now I have concerns about Rubio. He can't be that gullible. So he must be in denial.

The amendments are totally cosmetic. In the real world of policing, it's impossible for law enforcement officers -- particularly those who lack the specialized training given to Border Patrol agents -- to make assumptions about one's legal status without taking race and ethnicity into account. We can tell them not to think about race and ethnicity, but that only makes them more likely to think about them. Anyone who claims otherwise is dishonest, disingenuous or delusional.

Besides, there was an additional change in the law that arguably makes it even more dangerous and more divisive. Now, the requirement that a police officer must determine the immigration status of an individual who they have a "reasonable suspicion" is in the country illegally extends to those instances where police respond to something as minor as city ordinance violations. That could include loud parties, barking dogs, cars on blocks, overcrowded apartments, etc. One can easily imagine neighbors turning in one another, and an environment that is already poisoned with resentment and fear becoming more so.

Supporters say they changed SB 1070. Believe it. They made it worse and more likely to lead to abuse. Anyone who doesn't see that must be blind. Of course, ambition has been known to have that effect on people.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.