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Is Rubio’s “Amnesty” Dead on Arrival?

Both President Obama and the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” have weighed in on their plans for “comprehensive immigration reform.” Now is as good a time as any to revisit my column about Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s embrace of the comprehensivist cause and some of the reactions.

When you look at the Gang of Eight, Rubio is the only addition to the senators who have been pushing immigration liberalization since the Bush administration. And I think it will be very difficult for any immigration plan to win majority or near-majority support—and therefore pass the House—among Republicans without Rubio’s continued blessing.

Rubio chief of staff Cesar Conda protested that his boss opposes “blanket amnesty” and a “special pathway to citizenship” for “undocumented immigrants.” But the words “blanket” and “special” are key qualifiers.

Rubio and Conda emphasize that illegal immigrants would need to pay back taxes and fines while passing a criminal background check and learning English. All of those things were true in varying degrees of the 2006-07 McCain-Kennedy bills, which most conservatives opposed as amnesty, and the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which was described by its own supporters as amnesty.

George W. Bush, John McCain, Ted Kennedy, and most liberal Democrats have denied that past comprehensive bills amounted to amnesty because conditions were attached to legalization. But amnesty, like a pardon, may be full or conditional. What most illegal immigrants seek is the ability to legally live and work in the United States without being subject to removal. That is what these bills give them.

The fact is, nobody has ever seriously proposed a totally unconditional amnesty. “Blanket amnesty” exists only as a rhetorical concept.

Many liberals reacted favorably to Rubio’s initial immigration push. (So did a lot of conservatives, with Mark Krikorian and I being the usual sticks in the mud.) As Steve Benen wrote at MSNBC, “If Rubio wants to take the president’s plan, put a new name at the top, and convince the right it’s a Republican-friendly version, so be it.”

But the Gang of Eight did expose some differences with the president, and perhaps some fissures within the group itself. While John McCain said their framework was much like McCain-Kennedy, the bipartisan working group took pains to include enforcement measures like border security, employment verification, and triggers.

Chuck Schumer focused on the immediate legal status of and work permits for those who qualified; Rubio took up the arduous path to citizenship, more arduous than envisioned by past versions.

In his Nevada remarks, Obama suggested he wasn’t too keen on the triggers Rubio views as essential to any deal. Anyone who lived through the 1990s has to suspect Democrats will ultimately balk at restrictions on immigrant welfare use, whether or not they do so during negotiations for this bill.

What we are left with, then, is a conditional amnesty designed to be more conditional than some proposed in the past. While the senators agree in principle, the Democrats and Republicans appear to have remaining differences as to how important these conditions are. Rubio made sure to push back against the president’s apparent desire to water them down.

There is far more conservative and Republican support for this approach than there has been since Bush was reelected in 2004, though it remains to be seen whether a bill can win most House Republicans without losing many liberal Democrats.

Two things are noticeably different on the right: even Republican skeptics are more muted in their opposition than in the past (Steve King, the restrictionist congressman from Iowa, and Mike Lee both issued statements praising much of the Gang of Eight framework before saying they ultimately couldn’t sign on). And the big conservative talk show hosts—Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Levin, and now even Rush Limbaugh—range from supportive to keeping an open mind.

Rubio is a huge part of this. Heritage Action rated him as one of the most conservative members of the Senate, giving him the same score as Rand Paul. National Review’s Robert Costa correctly suggests that “Rubio’s ability to speak language of talk radio may be the key to immigration reform.”

But an even bigger factor is that the GOP is spooked by its poor share of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 elections, especially as this demographic grows. Some Republicans think immigration is a threshold issue for winning the elusive Latino vote; others simply don’t know what else to do. It is in this climate that Republicans may want to trust Rubio to go where they wouldn’t follow Mike Pence or Jon Kyl, two Republicans who want to legalize a large number of immigrants but with tougher enforcement promises and more procedural hoops than McCain-Kennedy.

That’s why, pace Daniel Larison, it’s telling that people who might be running against Rubio in Republican presidential primaries three years from now aren’t already jumping all over his Gang of Eight participation: if they thought this would be a huge liability for Rubio, or a good opportunity to get in front of the Republican parade on this issue, they’d be nailing him.

Yes, John McCain was able to overcome his immigration views to win the GOP nomination. Yes, conservatives got angry at Bush but for the most part didn’t stop supporting him. But amnesty was a problem for McCain in 2008, and perhaps his biggest obstacle in a briefly competitive Arizona senatorial primary two years later.

Not only did Mitt Romney run hard against McCain on immigration in 2007-08, he positioned himself similarly (and with more success) against both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich in 2012. Immigration by itself doomed neither candidate, but it didn’t help. And immigration was the biggest policy liability Perry had with primary voters, even if his debate performances might have been a bigger weakness.

While the Republican position on immigration has moderated since Romney was ridiculed for “self-deportation” and won only 27 percent of the Latino vote, House Speaker John Boehner was quick to warn Obama not to push negotiations to the left, and Rubio has reasserted himself as the comprehensivists’ right flank.

But can the center hold?

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative.

about the author

W. James Antle III, contributing editor, is the Politics Editor at the Washington Examiner. A former senior writer at TAC, Antle also previously served as managing editor of the Daily Caller, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Antle has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among other outlets, and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Week, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Reason, the Spectator of London, The National Interest and National Review Online. He also serves as a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.

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