While few believe the next two years are going to see much in the way of big, consequential legislation, there is still hope among some Republicans that Congress can pass comprehensive immigration reform, and thus show Hispanic voters that the GOP is not intractably hostile to them. The other day, Senator Lindsey Graham said, “If we don’t at least make a down payment on solving the problem and rationally dealing with the 11 million, if we become the party of self-deportation in 2015 and 2016, then the chance of winning the White House I think is almost non-existent.”

But in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Marco Rubio — the Republican most closely associated with comprehensive reform — shows decidedly less urgency about the issue. Here’s an excerpt from the interview — note the last part in particular:

You suffered politically for trying to push a sweeping immigration overhaul with a pathway to citizenship. What lesson did you draw from that?
That there now exists an incredible level of mistrust on anything massive that the government does.
In your book, you propose a piecemeal approach starting with more border security and ending with permanent residency. Are you dropping the idea of citizenship for those who came here illegally?
Once you have permanent residency, which is a green card, existing law allows you to apply for citizenship.
What about members of Congress who say they cannot vote for anything that would allow a pathway to citizenship?
We might prohibit people who came here illegally and got green cards under this process from ever becoming citizens. And if that’s what we have to do to get this thing passed, I would be open to it. But I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do.
Do you think the Republicans need to have some sort of immigration solution before 2016?
No. Those who argue that this will be a bonanza for Republicans are not telling the truth. Those who argue that we should do it for the purpose of politics are also mis-analyzing the issue.

It’s worth recalling the journey Rubio has traveled on this issue since he got elected six years ago. He gained his seat in 2010 as a tea party insurgent and before long was being hailed as the Republican Party’s savior, a young up-and-comer who had the support of the far right and could solve the party’s demographic problems. But when he tried to craft a comprehensive immigration bill, he suddenly found himself condemned as a traitor by the tea partiers who raised him up in the first place. No longer the fresh new thing, Rubio surely knows that if there’s a path to the 2016 GOP nomination for him, it isn’t going to involve vigorous advocacy for comprehensive reform. So it isn’t surprising to see him taking the position that while he still believes in it, there’s no hurry.

He’s also right that passing reform wouldn’t be a “bonanza for Republicans,” though I’m not sure than anyone is actually claiming it would be. People like Graham argue that it’s necessary though not sufficient for a GOP victory in 2016, a way to at least hold the party’s margin of defeat among Hispanics to a tolerable level.

But let’s be honest: Most Republicans in Congress don’t really want to do anything on immigration beyond building more fences. The more moderate voices on the issue, like Rubio, hope that they can start with some kind of border security measures, and then that will open up the space to address the undocumented population. There are good reasons to doubt, however, that they would ever be able to get to the second part of that process. Conservatives often say, “Secure the borders first!”, but never define quite what “secure” means. Unless we’re going to turn the entire country into East Berlin circa 1972, the border can never be 100 percent secure, which means that the conservatives will always be able to insist that we can’t deal with the undocumented yet because the borders aren’t secure.

The problem conservative Republicans have with a path to citizenship (or some other kind of legal status) doesn’t just have to do with unsecured borders, it’s that they’re just opposed to granting those immigrants legal status, period. That would still be true even if we built a thousand more miles of fences.

That’s where the center of gravity in the congressional GOP is, which means that the question “Should they pass comprehensive reform before 2016?” doesn’t really need an answer. However much political benefit they might get from it, they aren’t going to pass reform, for the simple reason that not enough of them support it. And even if a Republican were elected in 2016, they still probably wouldn’t pass comprehensive reform. There would probably be a border security bill, because that’s something nearly all Republicans support. But a path to citizenship? Not as long as Republicans control Congress. Even if Marco Rubio were the president.