Sen. Marco Rubio is warning that President Obama may allow many undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. by executive action if Congress fails to pass an immigration reform bill.
Rubio (R-Fla.) has remained relatively quiet since he helped pass a major immigration bill through the Senate in June. The legislation would legalize undocumented immigrants in exchange for border security and enforcement provisions.
But now he's reviving a message he has sent to conservatives who have criticized his efforts and don't want to see immigration reform pass: Congress can pass a bill with both border security and legalization, or they can sit on their hands and Obama could offer legal status to undocumented immigrants by himself.
"I believe that this president will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, he will be tempted to issue an executive order as he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen," Rubio said in an interview Tuesday on WFLA Radio's "The Morning Show with Preston Scott."
Just over a year ago, President Obama enacted his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary relief from deportation for certain young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Over 400,000 individuals have benefitted from the program, according to government data.
Rubio is cautioning that the same thing could happen again.
"We won't get any E-Verify. We won't get any border security," Rubio said. "But he'll legalize them. What I've tried to do is come up with as best as possible, given who controls the Senate, a way to start this conversation to at least begin to address some of these issues."
But will Obama actually act unilaterally to grant legal status to a broader set of undocumented immigrants?
Obama has come under intense pressure from immigrant activists who have asked him to halt his record levels of deportations, especially of individuals would qualify for legal status under the Senate bill that Rubio had helped pass.
"Sen. Rubio's bizarre comments demonstrate precisely why the president must lead on this issue by suspending deportations and expanding DACA," Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement. "He should take action now to prevent Congress from holding people's equality hostage."
Obama has pledged before that he wouldn't take executive action to address deportations, but then gone on to do just that.
"The idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. I promise you. Not just on immigration reform," he told the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in 2011. "But that's not how -- that's not how our system works."
Eleven months later, he would go on to enact the DACA program.
But since then, the president has repeatedly said he would not take such a step, suggesting it would be an abuse of power. He told Univision's Maria Elena Salinas back in January that, "I'm not a king."
"There are still going to be stories that are heartbreaking," he added. "With respect to deportations until we get comprehensive immigration reform. That's one of the reasons I think it's so important for us to go ahead and get this action done."
He's shown no signs of budging from that position, even as the immigration debate has slowed down in the GOP-controlled House.
Regardless of whether Obama would go against his word again and expand deportation relief, Rubio's statement could yield political dividends.
If enough rank-and-file and Republicans buy Rubio's argument that passing immigration reform beats the scary prospect of Obama granting "amnesty" with a magic wand, it could hasten congressional action.
But that could be a long shot. The Washington Examiner's Conn Carroll summed up the attitude of opponents of the immigration bills in Congress.
"Rubio warns conservatives that Obama may abuse his existing power on immigration, so we should give him more power," he tweeted.