On immigration reform, Senator Marco Rubio is the indispensable man. If he bails, it fails.
Which is why supporters of overhauling our immigration system were alarmed by two statements Rubio made last week. They were uncharacteristic of the leader of a major reform effort. He was not upbeat.
Rubio said the immigration bill drafted by the Gang of Eight—four Democratic senators, four Republicans including Rubio—doesn’t have the 60 votes needed for Senate approval. And he said he won’t support the legislation unless tougher border security measures are added.
Had anyone but Rubio made such a threat, it might have gone unnoticed. But Rubio’s role is pivotal. Without him, Senate passage of long overdue changes in immigration law would be in jeopardy. Prospects for House passage would be dimmed if not doomed.
And Republicans would suffer a strategic setback. The stigma—fair or unfair—that they’re anti-immigrant, especially when it comes to Hispanics, would seem to be confirmed. Democrats and the media would certainly claim it had been. And the GOP’s ability to win national elections and races in immigrant-heavy states would be diminished.
Worse, the country would be left with millions of residents here illegally but eager to become citizens. These are people for whom legal entry, after waiting for years, even decades, was never a real option. Nor is self-deportation today.
Since his election in 2010, Rubio has been the leading Republican advocate of immigration reform. Recognizing this, the other Republicans in the reform coalition—John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake—recruited him.
In recent weeks, Rubio has been talking to wary Republican senators and a few uncommitted Democrats. Interviewed on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, he said many may back the bill once convinced it will prevent “another wave of illegal immigration.” That means the border security provisions must be tightened, he said.
Several Republicans are expected to offer strengthening amendments. One from Republican whip John Cornyn would mandate stricter border control, more Border Patrol agents, and a fully installed E-Verify system. Rubio has endorsed an amendment that “dictates the number of fences and also where they’re located.”
These would take effect a decade after the legislation becomes law. Before immigrants could get a green card and seek citizenship, the enhanced security would have to be in place. The amendments favored by Rubio are likely to be reasonable and politically necessary, not poison pills.
If they’re rejected, Rubio said, “then I think we’ve got a bill that isn’t going to become law and … we’re wasting our time.” And he’d bail.
But he doesn’t want to—despite unrelenting attacks from opponents of immigration reform, including many allied with Rubio on nearly every issue but immigration. For him, spurning their advice is risky.
Rubio remains committed to the “principles” spelled out by the Gang of Eight, one of which says a path to citizenship “is contingent upon securing our borders.” Toughening security beyond what’s in the bill is consistent with the gang’s principles, Rubio believes.
He wants to increase the number of GOP senators voting for the bill to give it a Republican and conservative coloring. That should improve its chances in the House.
To keep immigration reform on track, two things need to happen. Rubio’s brethren in the Gang of Eight must go along with security enhancing amendments. So far, they appear willing to.
Rubio made that easier by not insisting on a controversial step proposed by conservatives: a requirement the border be fully under control before illegals can qualify as legal residents. This would lose Democratic votes.
The second involves Rubio personally. It would be a mistake for him to abandon the immigration bill even if the security amendments are spiked. Above all, Rubio must keep immigration reform alive. After Senate passage, there will be two opportunities to improve the bill, first in the House, then in House-Senate negotiations on a compromise. His influence will be critical at both stages.
In 1986, Representative Jack Kemp was under enormous pressure to vote against a tax reform bill, crafted by Democrats, that Republican leaders loathed. It set the top income tax rate at 38 percent and reduced the personal exemption. The bill passed narrowly with Kemp’s vote, only to be drastically improved by the Senate. The top rate at final passage was 28 percent.
Like Kemp, Rubio will be vindicated once a fairer, more secure immigration system is the law of the land and Republicans are no longer shut out of the Hispanic community. Credit won’t come soon. But when it does, Rubio will be first in line to get it.