Marco Rubio isn’t the first Republican who has embraced “comprehensive immigration reform,” but he might turn out to be the most successful. Unlike John McCain, the Florida senator is popular with conservatives. And unlike George W. Bush, he is addressing a party that may be ready to drop its enforcement-first stance.
The Obama administration signaled its approval of Rubio’s immigration rhetoric in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “We hope that it signals a change in the Republican approach to this issue,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “Again, to my knowledge, Senator Rubio has yet to put anything on paper or draw up any legislation. We welcome reports of his positions…”
According to the Washington Post, Carney went on to say that they “look forward to working with him and other Republicans in pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform.” This time around, there will be more Republican pursuers.
Paul Ryan, who had been a reliable vote against the McCain-Kennedy amnesties, praised Rubio. “I support the principles he’s outlined,” Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, said. And what are those principles?
“We can’t have the kind of vibrant growth that we need and the economy we want, based on limited government and free enterprise, if we don’t have a legal immigration system that works,” Rubio explained. “And in order to have a system that works, we have to deal with the people who are here illegally.”
Rubio still pays lip service to the position taken by House Republicans during the immigration battles of 2006-07. “There right way to deal with them is not amnesty,” he said, “and is not a special pathway to citizenship.”
But Rubio said of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who remain in the country, “We have to understand that these folks are here to stay.” Most Republicans have understood this as amnesty. Rubio added, “ultimately it’s not good for our country to have people permanently trapped in that status where they can’t become citizens.” That sounds like a pathway to citizenship.
The New York Times describes these as “views that set him apart from many other Republican conservatives,” but Rubio is unlikely to get the McCain treatment. (And it’s worth noting that even McCain was able to win the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.) The freshman senator is increasingly seen as a conservative rising star, and Republicans are worried about their dismal performance among Hispanics at the ballot box last year.
Missing from Rubio’s message is any sense of why conservatives have been skeptical of such legislation in the recent past: the failure of the 1986 amnesty program. The Reagan administration’s legalization effort was rife with fraud. The promised enforcement measures never fully materialized even after the amnesty took place. Illegal immigration didn’t decline and Hispanics didn’t reward Republicans for their pro-amnesty votes at the polls.
Extensive polling finds that Hispanics are pro-choice and favor social welfare spending more than the public at large, suggesting it won’t be easy for Rubio to mix his preferred immigration policies with paeans to limited government and free enterprise. There is also a conflict between Rubio’s vision of increasing skilled immigration while being generous with family reunification and lenient with disproportionately low-skilled illegal immigrants.
To the extent that unskilled immigration remains unchecked, what about the impact on the wages and jobs opportunities of the most economically vulnerable Americans, who are themselves disproportionately black and Hispanic?
Some prominent Republicans on the Senate and House Judiciary committees, like Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, remain committed to the enforcement-first approach: enforce the law now and consider legalizing the illegal immigrants with the deepest roots in the country later.
But for most of the rest of the party, Rubio’s plan—still in embryonic form—seems like a peace offering to a growing voting bloc Republicans don’t know how to reach, as well as a way to soften the GOP’s image with swing voters at large. The recent declines in illegal immigration due to the weak economy, as well as the Obama administration’s claims of record deportations, may make many wavering conservatives feel that enforcement has already been tried.
The biggest data point that suggests Republicans are more receptive to some kind of immigration amnesty? Rubio is a possible candidate for the presidential nomination in 2016. None of his likely primary opponents denounced him.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.