WASHINGTON — In the week since President Barack Obama announced a plan that would allow some young illegal immigrants to stay in this country, Republicans have struggled to embrace any version of immigration reform.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has fumbled to answer questions about how he would handle such undocumented youth if he were elected president. And Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who never had a bill in writing but who began talking about his own immigration plan for young people this spring, told national news outlets that the president should have called him.
Obama took a similar idea as his, implemented it through the executive branch, "and now its the greatest idea in the world," the Florida senator complained Friday in Orlando in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a day after Romney spoke to the gathering, and just before Obama himself took the stage.
"I dont care who gets the credit," Rubio said. "I dont. But it exposes the fact that this issue is all about politics for some people. Not just Democrats. Republicans too."
Obama and many Democrats say that Republicans have had and still have plenty of opportunities to contribute, and are directly responsible for the current state of immigration politics. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., this week accused Republicans, in particular Rubio, of expressing "phony outrage" over the administrations policy. The administrations directive allows young illegal immigrants who were raised in the United States to remain for two years under a deferred deportation.
"Leading Republican voices on immigration have yet to actually disagree with the decision," Reid said on the Senate floor. "The complaints are varied, but they have one thing in common: None of them actually take issue with the substance of President Obamas directive."
Republicans could have supported the DREAM Act in 2010, Reid said, when it came up for two votes in the Senate and failed to get the 60 votes needed to proceed to a full vote. And Rubio, Democrats note, could have expressed support for it on the campaign trail, sending a signal to fellow Republicans that the idea had backing from a leading Hispanic political figure.
The DREAM Act would allow young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children to stay here if they are in college or go into the military.
Republicans have pointed out that even with majorities in the Senate and House through 2010, Obama failed at comprehensive immigration reform, one of his campaign pledges.
Obama was talking about Romney on Friday, but his message to the NALEO gathering applied to Rubio, too. Six years ago, Obama said, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and President George W. Bush came together to champion comprehensive immigration reform.
"So to those who are saying Congress should be the one to fix this, absolutely. For those who say we should do this in a bipartisan fashion, absolutely," Obama said. "My door has been open for three and a half years. They know where to find me."
Rubio didnt start talking about his own proposal until early this spring, shortly after meeting with Daniela Pelaez, the valedictorian and a Dartmouth College-bound senior at North Miami High School who faced deportation. Rubio said Friday that when he arrived in the Senate in early 2011, no one wanted to talk about immigration reform because the wounds from the failed 2007 effort and the DREAM Act were still too fresh.
"As long as this issue of immigration is a political ping-pong that each side uses to win elections and influence votes, Im telling you it wont get solved," Rubio said. "Because there are too many people who have concluded that this issue unresolved is more powerful. They want it to stay unresolved. Its easier to use to influence elections. Its easier to use to raise money."
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, accused both parties of using immigration for political purposes.
"People believe in border security, shared values, so why do we have this political impasse?" Aguilar said. "Because both parties are using this politically to appease certain constituencies. For instance, theres cowardice to stand up and say, Im conservative and Im for immigration.... Republicans need to have courage."
Republican leaders, responding to Romneys weak cues on immigration, never got behind Rubios proposal, particularly in the House of Representatives, where the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has refused to hold a hearing on the DREAM Act. House Speaker John Boehner in April said "it would be difficult at best" to take up Rubios as-yet-unwritten proposal, seen at the time as a way for Republicans to make inroads with Hispanic voters.
In the end, though, the conversation Rubio sparked this spring may have opened the door to the presidents policy. It certainly put pressure on the White House to act. Signs that Democrats were irritated by Rubios involvement emerged in April, when Reid wrote an op-ed in The Miami Herald criticizing the Florida senators nascent idea. Reid disliked the proposal in part because it didnt offer a path toward citizenship although neither does the administrations directive.
But some of those in the thick of the battle say that merely by opening the door to activists, Rubio gave the movement "political space for this to happen," said Gaby Pacheco, 27, an immigration activist from Miami who met with Rubio when he began crafting his immigration plan, and when it appeared White House officials had stalled.
Obama took persuading to move forward administratively. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led a letter-writing campaign to the White House, suggesting for several years that there is a long history of the government exercising prosecutorial discretion in immigration matters. He also asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about it whenever she appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Napolitano issued the administrations directive last week.
"There was a lot of both inside and outside strategy that had to occur for this to happen," Pacheco said. "But there was a moment where I believe that the president believed, and believed in our community, and believed that this was the right thing to do. And he had the courage to move forward and do it."
Obama said Friday he refused to continue to look young people in the eye and tell them: "Tough luck. Politics is too hard." He acknowledged that Republicans are correct when they say its not a permanent fix. Thats got to come from Congress, he said.
"Its a temporary measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while offering some justice to these young people," Obama said. "But its precisely because its temporary Congress still needs to come up with a long-term immigration solution rather than argue that we did this the wrong way or for the wrong reasons."
Romney in his speech had no plan to address the 11 million undocumented people who are in the U.S. illegally. He did tell the NALEO gathering Thursday that he "wont settle for stop-gap measures" such as the presidents plan for DREAM Act-eligible youth.
Young people affected by the policy said theyll be watching for answers from Republicans. Those who will be helped by the Obama administrations policy cant vote. But they said they believe they will vote some day, and they showed no sign of affiliating with a party that is uninterested in them. They gathered in Washington last week to celebrate their victory at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, which is closely aligned with the DREAM Act movement.
"We need to know what they want to do with us," said Erika Andiola of Arizona, one of the young activists celebrating their win. "We want answers."
David Lightman contributed to this article from Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @erikabolstad