(REUTERS/Mike Blake)

“We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship. Now, this is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side. Make no mistake: Today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one.”

— Hillary Clinton, roundtable in North Las Vegas, Nev., May 5, 2015

This was an interesting statement by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, made as she laid out her policy goals for tackling illegal immigration. She tried to draw a stark distinction between her stance and the growing field of Republican candidates.

But one of those candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), was a key member of the bipartisan coalition that passed a comprehensive immigration overhaul in the Senate in 2013. That bill died in the House, and Rubio has since said it is better to tackle the problem piecemeal, starting with better border security.

But what’s his position on citizenship? Note that Clinton made a point of saying “clearly and consistently” — modifiers that leave the actual meaning of her statement open to some interpretation.

The Facts

In 2014, as the Senate bill was debated in the House, Rubio at one point mused that he would be “open” to a bill that did not include a path to citizenship, on the grounds that it was better than the status quo, but he added: “Do I think it is in the best interest of this country to have millions of people here who can never become Americans? I don’t.”

Similarly, in a 2014 interview with Simon Conway, he said:

“The part that’s difficult is, is what do you do with millions of people in this country who are here illegally? What do you do about it? And I think that the couple of things we’re not going to do — we’re not going to award citizenship to people or give them a benefit they wouldn’t otherwise have. And we’re also not going to round up and deport 12 million people. So the problem with finding a solution between those two different positions is people are not willing to even talk about it until they believe the laws are going to be enforced.”

Rubio has continued with that theme in 2015. His book, “American Dreams,” was published in January and described his current thinking. He outlined a three-step plan under which undocumented immigrants must come forward and register, and then, if qualified, apply for a temporary nonimmigrant visa. This would give them a work permit. Rubio then writes:

“Third and finally, those who qualify for a nonimmigrant visa will have to remain in this status for at least a decade. After that, they would be allowed to apply for permanent residency if they so choose. Many who qualify for this status will choose to remain in it indefinitely. But those who choose to seek permanent residency would have to do it the way anyone else would, not through any special pathway.”

Rubio’s reference to not having a “special pathway” led some reporters to conclude he had backed away from an explicit path to citizenship. But in numerous interviews, Rubio denied that was the case.

In a New York Times interview, published Dec. 31, 2014:

Q: “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?”

A: “Once you have permanent residency, which is a green card, existing law allows you to apply for citizenship.”

On CNN, Jan. 23, 2015, Rubio said he still believed there should be a path to citizenship at the end:

“Once you have a green card, under existing law, in three to five years, depending on whether you got it through marriage or work, you would be able to apply for citizenship. Now, I don’t think it’s wise to have 12 million people who are forever in this country who feel American but are permanently barred from becoming citizens. Other people think that should be the price of having violated our laws in the first place. We can debate that. But we have to deal with that issue realistically, and we can’t until illegal immigration is under control first.”

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” April 19, 2015, Rubio said:

“And then the third step would be to pass the bill that goes to the 10 million people that are here, or 12 million that are here illegally. … And after a substantial period of time in that [work permit] status, assuming they haven’t violated any of the conditions of that status, they would be allowed to apply for legal residency, just like anybody else would, not a special process. And after you’re a legal resident, after a number of years, by law, you’re allowed to apply for citizenship.”

As always with these issues, there are complexities in the weeds. Rubio, in his comments, makes it sound relatively easy to obtain legal residency — a green card— after the 10-year wait is completed. But there is a cap on the number of green cards that are issued — 625,000 a year — and there also are country and category caps. As a result, there is a waiting list of 4.4 million people outside the United States seeking green cards.

So how would 11 million people suddenly qualify for green cards?

The Senate bill supported by Rubio actually addressed this problem, in an obscure provision (Section 2302) that was informally known by Senate aides as the “ShamWow visa.” (The ShamWow towel supposedly soaks up an enormous amount of liquid.)  But it’s unclear if Rubio would support such a provision now, especially because in the CBS interview he reiterated that there would not be “a special process” for applying for legal residency.

“He’s always talked about fixing the legal immigration system before letting illegal immigrants apply for green cards,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said. “Part of fixing the legal immigration system means dealing with the big backlog.” Conant noted that Rubio voted for the Senate bill, but he did not specifically answer a question on whether Rubio still supports Section 2302. (Update: Rubio on Oct. 5 told CNBC that he no longer supported the ShamWow provision “because we can’t pass it.”)

Conant added: “As recently as the National Review Summit on Friday, Marco was arguing that we should want people who are going to be here for the rest of their lives to become Americans. He has said it would not be wise to have millions of people permanently in this country who could never become citizens.”

Depending on one’s perspective in the debate, Rubio is either trying to have it both ways or is simply being a bit obtuse. Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the pro-immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said that Rubio has been “deliberately vague” on what he supports, and that it would be difficult for undocumented immigrants to get green cards unless special provisions were enacted.  She added: “I don’t see him as an advocate for a path to citizenship.”

But Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute said: “Senator Rubio has consistently, if not clearly, supported a path to citizenship for most unauthorized immigrants.” In his view, “Rubio’s strategic and policy changes do not mean he opposes a path to citizenship. Rubio has merely reordered his reform priorities.” He agreed, however, that Rubio has not been especially clear about his position.

Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin defended Clinton’s language: “Any candidate who is intentionally vague on the issue is, by definition, not clear and consistent in their support.”

The Pinocchio Test

This is a difficult situation to evaluate. Clinton certainly wanted to paint all of the Republican candidates with an anti-immigration brush, but gave herself some wiggle room on Rubio by adding in the modifier of “clearly and consistently.”

But that’s an all-purpose modifier that could be applied to every politician on just about every issue, including Clinton herself.

In straining to suggest Rubio’s stance is the same as other Republicans, Clinton goes too far. Rubio has consistently said he supports a path to citizenship. Clinton would have a better case if she specifically said Rubio needs to provide more clarity on how quickly his plan would grant immigrants that citizenship — especially if he no longer supports creating a new visa category that would smooth the path to a green card. After all, that’s a critical step on the way to citizenship.

We wavered between One and Two Pinocchios, but ultimately tipped toward Two. Rubio has taken a relatively lonely position in the GOP on immigration, and it’s not quite fair to suggest his position on citizenship has been inconsistent. (Update: If Rubio’s campaign had admitted he no longer supported the ShamWow provision at the time this fact check was written, we would tipped toward One Pinocchio.)

(Update: Our friends at PolitiFact correctly note that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who also backed the Senate bill, is also considering a presidential run and has not wavered from advocating a path to citizenship. They gave Clinton a “mostly false,” equivalent to Three Pinocchios. Given that Clinton mentioned “potential” candidates, that may be a fair assessment.)

Two Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook

Click this link for more candidate fact checks