Earlier this week, I wondered when the next generation of Republican leaders would start competing for ascendancy in the post-Obama GOP. Marco Rubio has the inside track, I wrote, as the most talented member of the Class of 2010, the Tea Party class that owes little to the pre-existing establishment. Today, the Wall Street Journal profiles an effort soon to be launched by Rubio on immigration, with a plan that Matthew Kaminski says “charges up the middle” and attempts to defuse a political land mine for Republicans:
Florida’s junior senator and one of America’s most prominent Hispanic politicians wants to take the Republican lead on immigration reform. Getting out front of President Obama’s campaign pledge to overhaul the system in his second term, Mr. Rubio is laying out his ideas for possible legislation.
Whether Mr. Rubio is courageous or foolhardy, the outcome on Capitol Hill and the impact on his career will tell the story. Immigration has long been a profitable wedge issue for Democrats and Republicans. On Wednesday at the Biltmore Hotel near his home here, Mr. Rubio spells out a reform plan that charges up the middle.
His wholesale fix tries to square—triangulate, if you will—the liberal fringe that seeks broad amnesty for illegal immigrants and the hard right’s obsession with closing the door. Mr. Rubio would ease the way for skilled engineers and seasonal farm workers while strengthening border enforcement and immigration laws. As for the undocumented migrants in America today—eight to 12 million or so—he proposes to let them “earn” a working permit and, one day, citizenship.
Those proposals amount to a collection of third rails for any number of lobbies. Organized labor has torpedoed guest-worker programs before. Anything that hints of leniency for illegals may offend the talk-radio wing of the GOP.
The plan offers a number of “modules” that are very familiar, but in a new combination, or so Rubio hopes. It comprises:
- Gain “operational control” of the border first
- Enhance employment checks
- Raise the hard cap on high-tech immigration
- Create a guest-worker program for low-skill labor
- A lengthy but not indefinite process for normalizing longer-term illegal residents
The last module will run into considerable opposition from Rubio’s Republican colleagues, who will insist that no amnesty be offered. Rubio doesn’t see it as amnesty, but as a way to first identify the people who need to be deported, and then to eliminate the permanent underclass of legal-limbo residents. That status quo hasn’t worked in Europe, Rubio argues, and it won’t work here, either:
“Here’s how I envision it,” he says. “They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check.” Anyone who committed a serious crime would be deported. “They would be fingerprinted,” he continues. “They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they’ve been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country.”
The special regime he envisions is a form of temporary limbo. “Assuming they haven’t violated any of the conditions of that status,” he says, the newly legalized person could apply for permanent residency, possibly leading to citizenship, after some years—but Mr. Rubio doesn’t specify how many years. He says he would also want to ensure that enforcement has improved before opening that gate.
The waiting time for a green card “would have to be long enough to ensure that it’s not easier to do it this way than it would be the legal way,” he says. “But it can’t be indefinite either. I mean it can’t be unrealistic, because then you’re not really accomplishing anything. It’s not good for our country to have people trapped in this status forever. It’s been a disaster for Europe.”
It would have a better chance of passing the Senate than a strict no-amnesty bill would, obviously. Democrats want to push on immigration reform anyway, and Republicans will have to have a reasonable alternative on the table. Rubio is under no illusions that this alone will allow the GOP to make inroads with Hispanic voters, but it will at least remove the biggest roadblock:
Is immigration reform a magic bullet for the GOP’s troubles with Hispanic voters?
“No,” Mr. Rubio says, but “the immigration issue is a gateway issue for Hispanics, no doubt about it. No matter what your stance is on a number of other issues, if people somehow come to believe that you don’t like them or want them here, it’s difficult to get them to listen to anything else.”
I’d like to see more detail, especially on how Rubio plans to define the length of residence requirement to enter into the normalization process, along with the method of enforcing that and the commitment to deporting those with criminal records (other than that which attends their immigration status). The method of certifying border security matters a great deal, too, of course, and the commitment from Democrats this time around to actually securing the border, rather than the double-talk Ronald Reagan got in 1986. These are not mere details, but critical to the nature of the approach.
Still, I think Rubio is on the right path, and the sooner that this issue gets off the table, the better off the Republican Party will be. Given the results of the 2012 elections, we aren’t going to see anything better than this in principle that could resolve the differences between Republicans and Democrats, and its success or failure will tell us — and Hispanic voters — whether Democrats are serious about resolving the issue or just using it for demagoguery.