Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is proving to be one of the most energetic advocates of so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR), less poetically known as S. 744, the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013." Of the "Gang of 8" — four Democratic senators and four GOP senators — negotiating the legislation, he is perhaps making the most prominent push for it.
His efforts, however, are putting him at odds with fellow Republicans and conservatives. His website is filled with press releases on CIR, including an "immigration reform facts" page designed to "separate fact from fiction" that, in doing so, takes fellow Republicans such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to task. Rubio also spent much of April 18 being interviewed by talk radio hosts — including Rush Limbaugh — trying to defend CIR to conservative listeners. If Limbaugh's callers are any indication, however, Rubio didn't have much success.
In part, this is just one of the hazards of leadership. It's easy to lead people to where they already want to go. Does that even count as leadership at all? Genuine leadership seems to involve taking people someplace that's good for them even if they don't want to go there. Think of Moses, who almost couldn't convince the Israelites to leave slavery for the Promised Land.
But Rubio's GOP critics don't believe CIR and the Promised Land have much in common, and therein lies the problem. Beyond the usual conservative complaints about big legislation (e.g., that it's filled with pork), critics argue that CIR is nothing less than amnesty for law-breakers, and that the first priority of any immigration legislation should be to secure the border. They worry that CIR will — like current immigration and border security laws — simply go unenforced or be made even more lenient down the road. And then there's the concern, voiced clearly by Limbaugh, that CIR amounts to political suicide as it will enfranchise millions of new Democratic voters.
In response, Rubio claims that amnesty isn't to be found in CIR, but in maintaining the status quo. (This looks to be a reversal from his stance two years ago, when he claimed that any “earned path to citizenship” — which is what CIR offers — is "code" for amnesty.) Amnesty or not, Rubio insists that CIR is an improvement on the current situation. He argues that, while he used to hold the "control the borders before legalization" position many conservatives now are advocating, such a strategy merely continues the status quo, in which illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. without paying taxes, without getting an adequate background check, etc.
Rubio also campaigns for CIR on the grounds that it would fix the legal immigration process. CIR would favor skilled workers, rather than the family members of those already here. And, he says, it would require all employers to use the E-verify system, so that jobs would only go to people here legally.
It remains to be seen what Rubio's efforts will mean for CIR, and for his own political future. If, after sticking his neck out in a bipartisan fashion, no legislation gets passed, his campaign for CIR would seem to be all pain and no gain.
But, suppose CIR does pass: Does it bring Latinos and Hispanics closer to the GOP, or does it solidify a Democratic electorate in the U.S., as the 1986 amnesty law perhaps did in California? Do the "border triggers" get taken seriously, so that newly-designated "registered provisional immigrants" (RPIs) make no progress toward permanent residence and citizenship until the border is secured? Or do the standards simply get watered down and relaxed?
Rubio has already switched positions on whether CIR is amnesty and whether the borders should take priority. And the legislation he advocates, in my opinion, appears to reward those who broke the law ahead of those who obeyed it. If the resulting legislation gets ignored just like current immigration and border security laws are ignored, then Rubio will have merely succeeded in leading the debate right back to where it started.
That wouldn't be good for the country or for the GOP. And it's not likely to be rewarded should Rubio decide to run for president in 2016.