Senator Marco Rubio. Son of American immigrants from Cuba. Tea Party and conservative champion. Possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016. And now riding to the GOP’s rescue on immigration policy – at least in the words of the Wall Street Journal.
Saturday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal featured the most recent edition of the “Weekend Interview,” in which the senator from Florida laid out a series of reforms to U.S. immigration policy sure to incite conversation about the issue on the road to the elections of 2014 and 2016. Although Rubio’s ideas will certainly seem a boon in a deficient policy debate to some and will simultaneously turn off others, the young senator has proven willing to take on tough issues. But will his stance prove to be practical policy and palatable politics?
The position Rubio holds that will likely most likely meet opposition from conservatives is that he does not propose to deport 8 to 12 million illegal immigrants – WSJ’s numbers – instead intending that they “earn” first a work permit and then citizenship. This will remind many of Newt Gingrich’s assertion during the 2012 primary that it is not realistic to round up and deport that many people, especially those that have been here for a long time – an assertion, it will be remembered, that his Republican colleagues quickly seized upon in debate to argue that the former speaker’s stance on the issue was weak. Before Rubio’s stance is dismissed, however, one must envision the operation of a government organization charged with sending 8 to 12 million people packing from the U.S. – many of whom have planted familial roots, assimilated to a great extent and have been otherwise law-abiding – and decide whether a more modest goal is in order where deportation is concerned.
White House press secretary Jay Carney and Politico are quick to point out the similarities between Rubio’s proposals and those of liberals, but there are important differences, the largest of which is the discrepancy between the two when it comes to border enforcement. The Florida senator strongly emphasizes the need to secure the border, a result necessary to help block potential drug and weapons smugglers and terrorists, to ensure that those who do come are made to contribute to programs like anyone else, and to build respect for the law. With Politico, the president and other liberals, we can be sure it is a token reference, which is why this reform must come first; we cannot repeat 1986 debacle of amnesty sans border security.
It is also important to note that Rubio proposes that illegal immigrants earn citizenship, and that after those legally in line. As told to WSJ:
“Here’s how I envision it…. 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…. 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.”
If security and the rule of law are paramount goals, and if we do indeed determine that deportation of every illegal immigrant is impracticable, some more modest proposal must be offered. Certain people will obviously need to be deported. Those who are imprisoned, for example; they do not need to be found and in most cases they have evinced a continuing unwillingness to respect our laws. As far as I can determine, they would amount to over 250,000. For many who have planted roots and begun to assimilate, however, a policy that encourages cooperation with law enforcement might be precisely what is needed to foster a respect for the law.
There are definitely legitimate objections that will be offered to the positions Rubio advances. Still, they should be treated as a well-thought-out conversation starter about an important issue, because now might be the opportune time to discuss serious reform. Michael Barone has suggested that the huge wave of illegal immigration in the last decade may be coming to an end, at least for now, making this an ideal moment to secure the border and deal with those here, while there is relative inactivity. Additionally, the much-debated impact of the Hispanic vote in November’s election has much of the GOP reevaluating the party’s positions toward this demographic (something we must do without liberal-like pandering or playing identity politics). Conservative candidates must approach the upcoming election cycle with arguments at the ready, whatever policy alternative they offer.
Rubio’s stance is far from perfect by my reading. For example, how can we prevent the abuse of the process of earning citizenship at a bureaucratic level? How will the senator’s plan deal with chain migration, which presents a long term problem? Will we just be adding millions more Democratic voters over time or will we bring many Hispanics into the GOP? Will potential “Reagan Democrat” union members be alienated? In other words, is the maxim that “good policy is good politics” true in this case? Perhaps Rubio will lose his conservative, Tea Party credentials as a result of his position. Perhaps, after his ideas are deliberated, he will deserve to do so. But at a minimum, he should receive kudos for stepping outside of the circle of politically safe positions, especially since he may soon be at the center of the national stage.