By MATTHEW KAMINSKI
Coral Gables, Fla.
Marco Rubio—41-year-old son of working-class Cuban exiles—has lived the upwardly mobile immigrant experience. In his fast rise, the Florida Republican has also experienced the politics of immigration. That story isn’t so inspirational.
During his successful Senate campaign two years ago, an attack leaflet picturing “the Real Rubio” alongside an image of Che Guevara was sent to GOP voters. The mailer noted that Mr. Rubio championed laws in the state legislature to give children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition and health benefits. After going to Washington, he was then criticized for not doing enough on immigration reform. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus branded him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a Miami-based Hispanic group called him “a Benedict Arnold.”
That may be mild compared to what’s coming. 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.
Mr. Rubio burst onto the national stage with his 2010 upset win amid the tea party surge. His conservative bona fides come with an appreciation for the realities of legislative politics. He starts by stressing that “legal immigration has been, for our country, one of the things that makes us vibrant and exceptional.” But then, in a nod to GOP restrictionists: “Every country in the world has immigration laws and expects to enforce them and we should be no different.”
Any overhaul, he says, needs to “modernize” legal immigration. America caps the number of visas for skilled workers and favors the relatives of people already here. “I’m a big believer in family-based immigration,” he says. “But I don’t think that in the 21st century we can continue to have an immigration system where only 6.5% of people who come here, come here based on labor and skill. We have to move toward merit and skill-based immigration.”
He says the U.S. can either change the ratio of preferences for family-based immigration or raise the hard cap on people who bring investment or skills into the country. He prefers the latter, noting that the U.S. doesn’t produce enough science, math and engineering graduates to fill the open posts in high-tech. He says this number can be adjusted to demand: “I don’t think there’s a lot of concern in this country that we’ll somehow get overrun by Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs.”
At the other end of the skill and wage scale, most of the 1.6 million agricultural laborers in America are Hispanics, the bulk of them illegal immigrants. American produce couldn’t be picked without them. The number and type of visas provided through a guest-worker program would have to be sufficient to address this pressing need. From Georgia to Washington state in recent seasons, unpicked fruits and vegetables have rotted in the fields. He’d look to increase the number of visas for permanent or seasonal farm workers.
“The goal is to give American agriculture a reliable work force and to give protection to these workers as well,” Mr. Rubio says. “When someone is [undocumented] they’re vulnerable to being exploited.”
Initially, the illegal migrants now in the U.S. would mostly “avail themselves” of the guest-worker system, says Mr. Rubio. “Just the process to come here to legally work in agriculture is very difficult and very expensive. It doesn’t work well. So that alone encourages illegal immigration.”
Lest anyone take Mr. Rubio for an immigration softy, he has co-sponsored Senate enforcement legislation championed by restrictionists. The E-Verify law, which has been adopted in several states, would if passed oblige employers to check the legal status of prospective workers against a federal database. Detractors say the database is faulty and error-prone, and the law turns workplace bosses into immigration agents and merely pushes illegal workers further into the shadows, making them more vulnerable to abuse.
Mr. Rubio stands by workplace enforcement as an essential component of any immigration reform. If the guest-worker and expanded high-tech visa programs are adopted, he says, “you want to protect those folks that are coming here . . . and the value of their visa and the decision they’ve made. You’re not protecting them if you allow their wages and their status to be undermined by further illegal immigration in the future.”
He says that modern technology—whether E-Verify or something else—ought to let employers easily check whether their hires are in the country legally. Enforcement is meant not to “punish” but to provide employers “safe haven,” he says.
As for the border, “we know what we need to do to gain more operational control,” which he says is to invest in people and infrastructure. Unlike many Republicans, Mr. Rubio doesn’t say that improved enforcement is a precondition for immigration reform. Such reform would, by his argument, ensure that fewer people will need or want to risk an arduous border crossing.
Politically hardest is the question of the up to 12 million illegals currently here. Mr. Rubio’s proposal allows for adults who overstayed their visa or sneaked in to come into the open.
“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.”
The staged process won’t please either the blanket amnesty crowd or the Minutemen. Still others have tried to split the difference by arguing for a permanent noncitizen legal-resident status for illegal immigrants and their offspring, on the German and French model.
Mr. Rubio repeatedly says his plan “is not blanket amnesty or a special pathway to citizenship.” The illegals wouldn’t jump any lines, “they’d get behind everybody who came before them.” No one would be asked to leave the country to qualify, but the requirements he sets out merely to get a working permit are “significant.”
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have eight, 10 million people who are undocumented,” he says. “We have to address this reality. But we have to do it in a way that’s responsible.”
Mr. Rubio makes an exception for the over one million younger illegals. Along the lines of the Dream Act that stalled in Congress last year, he says people who came here unlawfully with their parents should be accommodated “in a more expedited manner than the rest of the population” to gain a way to naturalize.
During last year’s debate over the Dream Act, Mr. Rubio tried to gather support for a less “broad” alternative. Republicans didn’t like its pathway to citizenship. His efforts caught the eye of the Obama campaign. President Obama pre-empted—or outmaneuvered—him. The president’s executive order offered two-year reprieves from deportation and work permits for young immigrants, and helped him with Hispanics in the election.
It was a lesson for Mr. Rubio, who saw his compromise efforts die as a result. Mr. Obama “may have even set back the cause a bit. He’s poisoned the well for people willing to take on this issue,” Mr. Rubio says. But he’s still ready to do so, though he claims—as hard as it is to believe—that he hasn’t “done the political calculus on this.” As he knows, politics is everything on immigration. Comprehensive efforts failed twice under the Bush administration. President Obama promised in both campaigns to act, but then he didn’t, even when Democrats controlled Congress his first two years.
In terms of legislative strategy, Mr. Rubio says he would want to see “a comprehensive package of bills”—maybe four or five as opposed to one omnibus—move through Congress concurrently. He says other experience with “comprehensive” reform (ObamaCare, the recent debt deal) shows how bad policy easily sneaks into big bills. It would also offer a tempting big target for opponents. Other reformers think that only a comprehensive bill can address the toughest issues. “It’s not a line in the sand for me,” replies Mr. Rubio.
Not missing a chance to tweak the president, he says that Mr. Obama has “not done a thing” on reform and may prefer to keep it alive as an electoral winner for Democrats with Hispanics for years to come. But, then again, “maybe he’s interested in his legacy,” Mr. Rubio adds, and open to a deal. The president, he says, would need to bring over Big Labor and talk back the most ardent pro-immigration groups from “unrealistic” positions on citizenship for illegals.
On the right, nativist voices in last year’s primary campaign gave birth to phrases such as “electric fence” (Herman Cain), “self-deportation” (Mitt Romney) and other nuggets that turned Hispanic voters off. Mr. Rubio counters that most conservatives understand that immigrants are entrepreneurial and assimilate easily. “Immigration is actually an important part of affirming a limited-government movement,” he says.
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.”
He adds: “I think it’s the rhetoric by a handful of voices in the minority, but loud nonetheless, that have allowed the left to create an unfair perception that conservatives and Republicans are anti-Hispanic and anti-immigration, and we do have to overcome that.”
After two relatively quiet years in the Senate, Mr. Rubio is taking his first significant risk. Often mentioned in talk about a 2016 presidential run, he has decided to make immigration a signature issue.
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.
A version of this article appeared on The Wall Street Journalwith the headline: Riding to the Immigration Rescue.