TAMPA - Neatly illustrating the political tightrope Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is walking on immigration reform, pro- and anti-immigration reform advocates both held demonstrations outside his office Wednesday. In an ironic reversal, the pro-reform crowd of immigrant advocacy groups, usually Rubio's political opponents, praised him for pushing the "gang of eight" reform bill and urged him to stay the course. The anti-reform crowd of tea party activists, including some of Rubio's earliest backers, complained bitterly that he has betrayed them by supporting the bill. "I believed Sen. Rubio in 2010 when he said we've got to secure the borders first ... (and that) an earned path to citizenship is code for amnesty," Tampa Tea Party chairwoman Sharon Calvert said. "We're here to hold him accountable," said Barbara Haselden of the South Pinellas 9-12 Project.
Rubio has incurred their wrath by calling for a path to earned citizenship for people in the country illegally, backing a bill proposed by a bipartisan group of senators that offers a path along with tightened border security. Opponents call a path to citizenship "amnesty," as did Rubio himself when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Then a comparatively little-known former state House speaker, he overcame then-Gov. Charlie Crist in a Republican primary battle by building a grass-roots movement among tea party activists and conservatives. The news conferences by the two groups came a day after three gay rights demonstrators were arrested at Rubio's district office on the University of South Florida campus. The campus police said a group was demonstrating peacefully but disrupting the office. The three refused to leave when asked and were arrested for trespassing and released on their own recognizance. They are Jarrod Scarborough, 39, of Gibsonton; Kimberly Denny, 44, of Palm Harbor; and Barbara Lawrence, 48, of Brandon. Rubio, meanwhile, was in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday. In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, he acknowledged he was concerned by conservatives' criticism. "Their opinions really matter to me because they were with me three years ago when so many people ... thought I had no chance to win my election," he said after quoting an email from Calvert. Conservative criticism "has been a real trial for me," he said. During the demonstration by the pro-immigration reform group, the Rev. Charles McKenzie of the Rainbow Push Coalition in Tampa rang the office door buzzer asking for the group to enter to make its concerns known. A staff member said she was instructed not to open the door when she was alone. The group also included members of Mi Familia Vota, a liberal Hispanic political group; the Florida Council of Churches; and the politically active Service Employees International Union. "Sen. Rubio has helped bring us this far," said the Rev. Russell Myer of the Council of Churches. "Now is the moment" for the bill to pass. "In the last 20 years, there has not been a moment like now." The bill is expected to pass the Senate this week, but passage in the House is more tenuous. [email protected] (813) 259-7761