A year before Gang of 8, the 2013 immigration effort that has become again a flashpoint in the Republican presidential campaign, Sen. Marco Rubio picked up the phone to talk immigration.
Then, in early 2012, he spoke to Gaby Pacheco, a DREAMer activist who gained prominence after taking part in a four-month walk from Miami to Washington to bring attention to undocumented immigrants under the threat of deportation.
Rubio's message, Pacheco says, was that they could work together to craft an alternative to the failed DREAM Act: legalization, but not citizenship, for undocumented youth brought to the country as children.
He thought immigration activists could make his effort work or derail it, so Rubio asked Pacheco for a favor. If at any point she felt that she could no longer support what he was trying to do, he wanted her to let him know, before telling the media.
There were twists and turns, a firing squad of suspicions, and eventually a major immigration policy change took place before the 2012 election. But it wasn't a legislative plan, it was Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), cheered by activists and derided by Republicans.
Many activists say it wouldn't have happened without one man — Marco Rubio.
As soon as Pacheco got off the phone, she huddled with leadership at United We Dream, where she served as political director at the time. While she appreciated what she felt was a good faith effort from Rubio, one thing nagged at her.
"If he’s just going to give us something temporary that doesn’t lead us to eventual citizenship, this is something the president can do," she recalls thinking at the time.
The strategy for activists quickly became figuring out a way to leverage Rubio's involvement to get what they wanted from the White House. At that time, in early 2012, the united front among activists toward a "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR) approach was beginning to fray.
An early example of the growing split: An email from Mohammad Abdollahi of Dream Activist to an immigration listserv that featured advocates as well as prominent establishment figures in the movement, like Angela Kelley from the Center for American Progress.
"At the end of the day any relief is better than no relief, which is what the failed CIR strategy y'all been pushing has gotten us," he wrote in the March 2012 email provided to BuzzFeed News.
In a meeting confirmed by two other sources, Pacheco met with White House officials Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Muñoz, Felicia Escobar, and Julie Chavez Rodriguez. The message from the administration was don't trust Rubio, Pacheco said, and the early pushback to the idea of executive action was reminiscent of what Obama himself would say when asked: He's not a king; he can't do as he pleases.
(Later, Pacheco contends, White House officials would email her articles that painted Rubio in a negative light on immigration, without comment, just as an FYI of sorts.)
She was working with a group that included Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, Rubio, and the White House, and her authenticity and independence was a major key to success, said Rick Swartz, who founded the National Immigration Forum in 1982. Swartz connected her with then Rubio chief of staff Cesar Conda.
"She legitimized him, which legitimized her at the higher levels of power," he said.
As is often the case with rumored bills that never get introduced, some have speculated whether Rubio's effort produced real legislative language. Pacheco said she was brought into Conda's office with another activist and Rubio staffers and shown a draft, which a source in the room confirmed.
Part of the reason other activists say they're sure there was language is because Rubio's efforts would eventually be introduced as the ACHIEVE Act in late 2012 by retiring Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, who he worked with before abandoning the effort after Obama's actions.
Swartz said many of the Washington establishment immigration activists close to the administration resisted Rubio's effort purely because he was a Republican.
"Doing something administratively with DREAMers — they couldn’t budge the White house for a long time until Rubio became a player," Swartz said. "The Rubio play became a pivot that led to DACA, and without it, I don’t think DACA happens."
Another activist involved with the effort at the time who asked for anonymity for fear of angering the administration said, "The minute the White House found out about the prospect of those DREAMers endorsing 'DREAM Act without citizenship,' that was an 'Oh shit' moment that directly led to DACA."
A former White House official familiar with the road to deferred action disputed this. "That's horseshit," the former official said.
Of working with Rubio, the former official said, "The caution wasn’t 'don’t work with him,' but 'know what to expect.'"
"On immigration Republicans do this dance, pretend to do something, and then leave you at the altar," the former official said. "You have to get real commitments, don’t just believe it if he says it."
Still, prominent activists say the administration "freaked out" when they heard DREAMers were going to support Rubio's bill, perhaps further spurred by fears that Rubio could improve his standing as a potential vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney, particularly in the eyes of Hispanic voters.
By May 2012, Rubio's team was saying his bill would be ready by the end of the summer. But, according to Pacheco, they were also getting nervous. If the White House does something, we're done, Pacheco said they told her.
"One of the things [Rubio] warned about throughout was the importance of Congress taking action through a law," a source close to Rubio told BuzzFeed News. "Because the fear was that Obama would start acting unilaterally."
That fear proved well-founded.
Pacheco had one last big meeting: On May 29, 2012, she met with White House legal counsel — the only meeting she ever had with them — and they sketched what DACA would look like legally.
Pacheco had been at the cusp of what she felt was a real break before. The previous summer, the Department of Homeland Security released the infamous Morton Memo, which clarified immigration enforcement priorities. Advocates felt that was never actually put into practice. But against hope, she began to think something significant could actually happen this time.
Two weeks later, in the Rose Garden, Obama announced temporary deportation deferral for eligible youth that would provide them with work visas. "It makes no sense to expel talented young people who are, for all intents and purposes, Americans," Obama said at the time.
“When the president ignores the Congress, ignores the Constitution and forces a policy like this down the throat of the American people, it’s going to make it harder to have a conversation like that,” Rubio said at the time. He'd met with United We Dream activists, including Pacheco, just days before Obama's announcement.
The source close to Rubio said one consequence of Obama acting unilaterally was that it eliminated the political will to act on immigration, a reference to the larger and failed 2013 effort. "In the long run it was one of those things that started to chip away at Obama’s credibility, about his willingness to enforce any law that Congress would pass."
Pacheco compared the political victory of DACA to a vehicle with many parts — and "Rubio was the gas," she said.
"Having Rubio be our go-to person was us saying, 'We can support the Tea Party sweetheart or President Obama,'" she said.
A source close to Rubio's office at the time said, "My sense was they didn’t want to take credit for how they forced DACA."
And with pushback from all sides, it was a preview of what working on immigration would like in 2013 and beyond.
"It was like, 'God, this is a swamp,'" the source said.