Marco Rubio’s immigration challenge

Florida Senator Marco Rubio is widely viewed as a top contender for the race to become one of the top contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination.  It’s a long way off, so perhaps it’s a little silly to be picking front-runners… but on the other hand, anyone serious about securing the 2016 nomination had jolly well better be working on it today.  The importance of early preparation and diligent effort are among the important lessons to be taken from the 2012 contest.

Rubio’s great claim to party and media attention at the moment is his stance on immigration reform, which The Hill observes has led even some voices from outside Republican circles to hail him as a potentially transformational figure:

Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform, who mainly reside on the left, are surprised that Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has generated so much positive buzz from conservatives.

They see it as a promising sign that 2013 will be a more promising year for immigration reform than 2006 and 2007, which both began with high hopes that fizzled after a stalemate in Congress.

“He’s doing an awesome job of bringing along conservatives and bringing along conservatives in the media,” said Frank Sharry, the founder of America’s Voice, which advocates for comprehensive reform. “He’s making enormous progress in making reform palatable to people on the right in a way that no one has before.”

Unlike previous Republicans who made “comprehensive immigration reform” an issue, Rubio has retained the affections of grassroots activists and conservative opinion leaders.  This is taken as a sign of three developments, all of which might be valid:

1. Rubio is more persuasive and charismatic than previous Republican advocates for immigration reform.

2. Rubio is such an appealing presidential or vice-presidential possibility that Republicans don’t want to shoot him down based on his immigration stance.

3. The Republican Party is looking to change course on immigration, and Rubio – a charismatic Tea Party favorite of Cuban heritage – is the man they want at the helm.

As always when “immigration” is discussed, the terms must be defined before meaningful discussion can take place.   House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, who was the party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee, took a shot at it:

“Sen. Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system,” Ryan posted on his Facebook page Monday. “I support the principles he’s outlined: modernization of our immigration laws; stronger security to curb illegal immigration, and respect for the rule of law in addressing the complex challenge of the undocumented population.”

Clearly those three issues are related, but they’re also profoundly different, and it seems silly to discuss “comprehensive immigration reform” as if they were equal cultural or political challenges.  Modernizing our cranky old Edsel of an immigration system and improving border security are almost non-controversial.  They are both contributing factors to illegal immigration, because as with every other crime, the perpetrators weigh both costs and benefits.  If parking yourself in the legal system means years of bureaucratic stasis, and crossing the border illegally carries relatively modest risk of arrest and punishment, why do things the right way?

But it’s the third element of Ryan’s take on Rubio’s proposals that will cause the most controversy: “respect for the rule of law in addressing the complex challenge of the undocumented population.”  In other words, respect for the rule of law when dealing with a large population of people who decided to ignore it, producing successive generations who never got to choose whether they would respect it or not.

Dealing fairly, and effectively, with the different segments of the illegal population is difficult, and many “immigration reform” activists take pains to conflate them.  A “path to citizenship” for hard-working, education-seeking young illegals who were born in the United States is the marquee attraction of the amnesty movement.  It has a good deal of support from voters, who are sympathetic to the promise of youth, and uncomfortable with the idea of deporting people who were born in the United States.  But what about their parents, and the rest of their families?  What about young people who aren’t quite so driven to become productive assets to society?  Every amnesty proposal includes a reasonable set of standards… but what happens to those who don’t meet it?

Rubio would grant temporary legal status to those who passed background checks, underwent fingerprinting, demonstrated English skills, and could prove having an extended residence in the country. These newly legalized immigrants could apply for permanent residency leading to citizenship but would not receive any expedited consideration. They would have to apply through the same channels as aspiring immigrants outside the nation’s borders.

This has caused some concern among liberal advocates who worry that some immigrants would have to wait years or even decades to convert their temporary status to permanent legal status.

But Rubio has assured potential critics that he does not want to create a worker underclass akin to what exists in France and Germany.

“I don’t have a solution for that question right now,” Rubio told reporters and editors at The New York Times. He has proposed accelerating the process for granting green cards to legal immigrants.

English skills are a reasonable and necessary step toward assimilation.  Is Rubio really prepared to deport those who fail to demonstrate such skills?  If so, he’ll have a ferocious battle on his hands; if not, their mention is a rhetorical device, not a policy proposal.

Concerns about absurdly long waits for a final determination of status are quite valid.  The existing system is slower than molasses.  Can it be improved to the point where it can handle 500 or 1,000 percent increases in its caseload?  Who’s going to pay for all that?  What happens to immigration law enforcement if a huge portion of the illegal population is lifted into a quasi-legal holding pattern?  And isn’t one of the primary reasons we’re having this discussion the failure of previous amnesty efforts to deliver on their promises?

Rubio will need “solutions for those questions” very quickly.  It’s somewhat disappointing that he doesn’t have them already.  The leadership position on a hot-button issue will inevitably come with a barrage of tough questions, and in this case they aren’t difficult to anticipate.  The senator from Florida is but minutes away from a highly informative conference call with any number of groups that can provide him with a supply of precision skepticism about “comprehensive immigration reform.”