There’s a palpable eagerness among Republicans here to like Marco Rubio, but questions about his views on immigration remain, even among those voters who come out to see the Florida senator on a weekday afternoon.
On Friday, around 100 people packed into the living room of Jay and Jenna Padone for a classic New Hampshire political “house party,” though it’s more like a campaign event. The crowd was rapt as Rubio stood on a deep window ledge to deliver his stump speech, which wasn’t much different from the address he gave later that night in Nashua to a Republican conference or from his April 13 announcement in Miami. When it came time to answer questions, Rubio was fluid and knowledgeable on everything from foreign policy to energy issues.
But even the friendly conservative crowd wanted to understand where Rubio, one of the prominent Republican members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight last year, now stands on immigration. Had he changed his position on the issue of passing a comprehensive immigration reform plan as supported by the Gang? And if so, how?
Rubio has settled on a “mea culpa” way to explain his involvement in the Gang. “We can’t fix immigration with one massive piece of legislation,” he said. “I know that because I was part of an effort that tried. It didn’t work.”
That’s a clear shift on the procedure, but on the policy, Rubio has been less clear what he thinks. In fact, in Manchester, he took the path of talking not at all about what he wants or believes on immigration. But he had a lot to say about what the American people want and what elected leaders ought to do to appease them on the issue.
“The American people, they understand we’ve got an issue that has to be confronted. But they’re not willing to even talk about it until you show them, not tell them, you better show them that illegal immigration is under control,” Rubio said. “And actually, people feel more that way today than they did two years ago.” The border crisis from last summer and President Obama’s executive orders, he added, have made people more insistent on securing the border.
“What I’ve argued is the first thing we have to do, before anything else at this point, if for nothing else by sheer political reality, is you have to show the American people that you’re serious about enforcement and that future illegal immigration will be under control,” Rubio said. “You have to show them E-Verify and that it’s working. You have to show them an entry-exit tracking system, because visa overstays are over 40 percent of our illegal immigration in this country. You have to show them that you’ve secured the southern border, particularly that one sector that is insecure.”
Modernization of the legal immigration system, Rubio continued, is the second necessary step, transitioning from a family-based regime to a merit-based one. The idea’s not far off from what Jeb Bush described in his 2013 book on immigration.
Are these several individual bills? One bill combining all these enforcement mechanisms, and another that reforms the legal immigration system? Rubio didn’t get into the mechanics, only that political leaders need to focus on border security and modernization. After that, Rubio said, Americans will be “very reasonable and very responsible” about how to deal with illegal immigrants living in the country currently.
“If you’re serious about dealing with this problem, this is the only way to do it. If you want a talking point every two years for your election, then keep promising people a one-size-fits-all massive immigration bill,” Rubio said. “But I can tell you, the votes aren’t there, and neither is the public support.”
The house party group seemed satisfied, at least.