Not too long ago, Florida senator Marco Rubio seemed like a very unlikely candidate to spearhead an immigration reform effort alongside the likes of John McCain and Chuck Schumer. "The most important thing we need to do is enforce our existing laws," Rubio said in a 2009 interview with Javier Manjarres. "I am not, and I will never support any effort to grant blanket legalization/amnesty to folks who have entered, stayed in this country illegally."
A year later, in a Senate debate with Charlie Crist, Rubio criticized the Florida governor for backing the 2007 McCain-Kennedy immigration bill. "He would have voted for the McCain plan," Rubio said. "I think that plan is wrong, and the reason I think it’s wrong is that if you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do, in any form, whether it's back of the line or so forth, you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America."
And in an October 2010 debate with Crist, Rubio was asked by the moderator, "So your plan is that you're going to close the borders, get the electronic system, fix the legal system, and then do what?"
"And then you'll have a legal immigration system that works," Rubio said. "And you'll have people in this country that are without documents that will be able to return to the -- will be able to leave this country, return to their homeland, and try to re-enter through our system that now functions, a system that makes sense…Earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty."
But last week, Rubio endorsed a bipartisan proposal to normalize the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country and open up an earned path to citizenship for them. In a phone interview Monday, I asked Rubio why he changed his mind on the issue. His answer was that he really hasn't changed much at all. Here's the transcript Rubio's conversation with THE WEEKLY STANDARD (lightly edited for clarity and space):
Q: Three or four years ago, when you were running for Senate, we talked about this issue, and you seemed opposed to any bill that would legalize the status of illegal immigrants. Do you agree that your thinking on this issue has changed? And if so, when and why did it shift?
RUBIO: Well, first of all, I think my position has consistently been a couple things. Number one that we’re not going to create a special pathway to citizenship that disadvantages people that are doing it the right way or that encourages people to come here illegally in the future.
And the second thing that I’ve made very clear is that we’re not going to round up 11 million people. We’re not going to grant a blanket amnesty to 11 million people. And the solution lies somewhere in between those two.
In the past I really haven’t really had a specific response to address that. And obviously I spent time learning about this issue and talking to others. If you look at what we propose now in these principles, there’s been a lot of noise made about amnesty and things like that. But the reality of it is the only thing these folks are earning is the chance to apply for a green card just like everybody else does. They’re not getting anything different than anybody else would get…
The only thing they’re going to get is the chance to apply for a green card, just like they would if they went back to their nation of birth and waited 10 years. So, we’re not creating a special visa for them.
Q: In 2009, in one interview you said that ‘nothing will make it harder to enforce the existing laws if you reward the people who broke them,’ and 'I’ll never support an effort to grant blanket legalization/amnesty to folks who’ve entered illegally and stayed here.’ So you think that your position isn’t inconsistent with your past remarks at all?
RUBIO: No, again, the legalization that they’re getting is a temporary work permit that in no way disadvantages the people who are trying to come here permanently the right way. The people trying to come here permanently the right way are applying for a green card, and there isn’t a single person—none of these people who have illegally entered the country would get a green card before someone who is doing it legally before them would get one.
Q: What are the benefits of having a green card versus the temporary probationary status that would be granted immediately?
RUBIO: First of all, a green card is a permanent status in the United States. A green card means that 5 years after you get one, you can apply for citizenship. A green card means you qualify for any and every, you know, federal benefit that’s available to you. A temporary status is more akin to one of these work visas that people get. It has to be renewed. You have to meet the qualifications of it each time you renew it. It does not allow you to apply—you cannot convert it or adjust it into a permanent status. And you do not qualify for any federal assistance. You’re basically a long-term visitor to the United States as opposed to a permanent resident of the United States.
Q: Last week, Senator Schumer said that ‘on day one of our bill, people without status who are not criminals or security risks will be able to live and work here immediately.’ Is that accurate? A lot of conservatives saw that and said, that looks a lot like amnesty.
RUBIO: Well, first of all, I think that was an exaggeration. I mean, clearly there’s a process in place and people would have to apply for. And the idea that people could undergo background checks, pay fines, pay back taxes, and do all these other things in one day is [inaudible]. I think the bigger question is whether the security measures should happen before the legalization process happens.
That’s kind of the recurring argument, that even before the work permit process begins, there have to be security measures in place, particularly the border….
Q: Would some enforcement triggers have to take effect before any legalization happens, and then others would have to take effect before the green card process opens up?
RUBIO: My original position, when I first started looking at this, is let’s do the enforcement and the modernization of the systems first and when all that is in place, then we can start the work-permit process. The argument against that is that if people know that in the future you’re going to be giving out work permits to people who are here, that gives people incentive to people who are here to overstay their visas or for people to try to get in.
If the word gets out that in a couple years when the border is secured we’re going to be giving work permits to people who are undocumented, that creates an incentive for people to rush in and get here before that happens.
What we ultimately settled on is we wanted to freeze the numbers we have now before the problem got worse. And the way you do that is bringing people out right now and saying from this point forward this will not be available to anybody else. But I think there’s going to be an effort to argue that even the legalization process should wait until the enforcement measures are put in place. I’m already hearing that being argued by some.
Q: The Gang of 8 framework also endorsed a guest-worker program that requires employers to prove they first tried to hire an American before they employ a foreign guest worker. How would an employer prove that? Post a job and wait for a couple weeks?
RUBIO: There are details that have to be worked out, and that’s what the legislative process is for. … We want a guest worker program, but not one that hurts American workers that are here now. What we can do in law and how we can create that program is something we're going to have to talk to people that know about this to figure out the details.
Q: The framework doesn’t specify what the fine should be for the path to a green card and citizenship. Should that be in the hundreds of dollars? Thousands?
RUBIO: Details like how long they have to wait in line, how much they’re going to have to pay, all of that’s going to be open to debate. All of that’s going to be open to suggestion. It’s going to take some time to arrive there. It has to be substantial. But it also can’t be unrealistic. That’s the important balance that we’re going to have to work out.
Q: Under the 1986 immigration reform, there were supposed to be enforcement mechanisms there too, but it never ended up working. What lessons have you learned from that? And why will it work out any better this time?
RUBIO: Well, number one I think we have measures available to us that didn’t exist back then. For example, workable workplace enforcement mechanisms—a way to verify the people being hired are legally here—is probably technologically easier to do today than it was back then. The ability to track the entry and exit of the visas, visitor visas, how many people are coming here as tourists—we have better technology available to us. And even at the border, from the construction of a fence to all the other things that supplement that, we have things available to us that weren’t available back then.
The other lesson is the only way to make sure it happens is to link it to something that people really want, and that’s why we’ve come up with this green card process being linked to the enforcement structures.
And the green card process will not begin until there are verifiable enforcement measures that are in place. Obviously, the two big questions we need to answer are, what is sufficient in terms of enforcement, and, number two, is who verifies it, how is it verified?
And those things are going to have to be worked out. And a lot of that has to do with public confidence. If people do not believe that what we are doing is going to happen or is even doable then this whole thing isn’t going to work. There is no way that this measure can become law unless we do something that has the confidence of the vast majority of people.
Q: If this new reform is passed, some people will still sneak into the country illegally even if it’s a much smaller number because these enforcement measures work. What should happen to these people two, three, five years from now?
RUBIO: Number one, it’s going to be easier to manage the numbers of people that are accomplishing that if in fact the border has been substantially secured. Number two, it will be very difficult for people that are coming in to get a job which is going to discourage them from coming. Because if you have a workplace enforcement mechanism, and real penalties for those who hire those that are undocumented, it’s going to be harder for people to find jobs, which is the largest magnet that brings people here. And number three, we’re going to have a better idea of who they are because we’re going to be tracking not when people come in but whether people are leaving or not. It’s going to be easier to track these people down.
At the end of the day, I think your question is are we going to enforce our laws and deport people in the future when we have been unwilling to do it now, and I think the answer has to be yes or we’re going to wind up back here again in less than 10 years.