Marco Rubio’s Common Sense Immigration Reform Ideas
Over the weekend, Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave the first glimpse at an immigration reform proposal that he intends to put forward in the new Congress:
Any overhaul, he says, needs to “modernize” legal immigration. America caps the number of visas for skilled workers and favors the relatives of people already here. “I’m a big believer in family-based immigration,” he says. “But I don’t think that in the 21st century we can continue to have an immigration system where only 6.5% of people who come here, come here based on labor and skill. We have to move toward merit and skill-based immigration.”
He says the U.S. can either change the ratio of preferences for family-based immigration or raise the hard cap on people who bring investment or skills into the country. He prefers the latter, noting that the U.S. doesn’t produce enough science, math and engineering graduates to fill the open posts in high-tech. He says this number can be adjusted to demand: “I don’t think there’s a lot of concern in this country that we’ll somehow get overrun by Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs.”
At the other end of the skill and wage scale, most of the 1.6 million agricultural laborers in America are Hispanics, the bulk of them illegal immigrants. American produce couldn’t be picked without them. The number and type of visas provided through a guest-worker program would have to be sufficient to address this pressing need. From Georgia to Washington state in recent seasons, unpicked fruits and vegetables have rotted in the fields. He’d look to increase the number of visas for permanent or seasonal farm workers.
“The goal is to give American agriculture a reliable work force and to give protection to these workers as well,” Mr. Rubio says. “When someone is [undocumented] they’re vulnerable to being exploited.”
Initially, the illegal migrants now in the U.S. would mostly “avail themselves” of the guest-worker system, says Mr. Rubio. “Just the process to come here to legally work in agriculture is very difficult and very expensive. It doesn’t work well. So that alone encourages illegal immigration.”
Politically hardest is the question of the up to 12 million illegals currently here. Mr. Rubio’s proposal allows for adults who overstayed their visa or sneaked in to come into the open.
“Here’s how I envision it,” he says. “They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check.” Anyone who committed a serious crime would be deported. “They would be fingerprinted,” he continues. “They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they’ve been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country.”The special regime he envisions is a form of temporary limbo. “Assuming they haven’t violated any of the conditions of that status,” he says, the newly legalized person could apply for permanent residency, possibly leading to citizenship, after some years—but Mr. Rubio doesn’t specify how many years. He says he would also want to ensure that enforcement has improved before opening that gate.
The waiting time for a green card “would have to be long enough to ensure that it’s not easier to do it this way than it would be the legal way,” he says. “But it can’t be indefinite either. I mean it can’t be unrealistic, because then you’re not really accomplishing anything. It’s not good for our country to have people trapped in this status forever. It’s been a disaster for Europe.”
To satisfy conservatives, Rubio’s plan also includes support for increased border security as well as a much more stringent verification system that employers could use to verify that potential employees are indeed legally authorized to work in the United States. On the whole, though, these proposals strike me as a very good start. The Federal Government has been attempting to put together some kind of guest worker program for quite some time now, most recently during the Bush Administration’s aborted efforts as immigration reform. Temporary workers from Mexico and elsewhere who come to work on American farms and ranches have been a fact of life for decades now, and it’s never made any sense that these people don’t have some kind of legal recognition and protection. Indeed, bringing them into some kind of legalized status would arguably go a long way toward improving their working conditions. Similarly, it makes sense to bring a renewed focus on skills-based immigration. Some have suggested that we should offer visas to every foreign student that graduates with a degree in the STEMs, but other ideas have been suggested as well. Finally, the proposal to bring currently illegal immigrants into some kind of legal status that, eventually, would give them an opportunity to apply for citizenship if they choose to do so, seems to be such a blindingly obvious good idea that it’s a wonder that anyone would even question it.
President Obama is also in the process of putting forward his own proposal for immigration reform:
WASHINGTON — President Obama plans to push Congress to move quickly in the coming months on an ambitious overhaul of the immigration system that would include a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, senior administration officials and lawmakers said last week.
Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one comprehensive bill, the officials said, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces — separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farmworkers or highly skilled foreigners — which might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept.
The president and Democrats will also oppose measures that do not allow immigrants who gain legal status to become American citizens one day, the officials said.
Even while Mr. Obama has been focused on fiscal negotiations and gun control, overhauling immigration remains a priority for him this year, White House officials said. Top officials there have been quietly working on a broad proposal. Mr. Obama and lawmakers from both parties believe that the early months of his second term offer the best prospects for passing substantial legislation on the issue.
Mr. Obama is expected to lay out his plan in the coming weeks, perhaps in his State of the Union address early next month, administration officials said. The White House will argue that its solution for illegal immigrants is not an amnesty, as many critics insist, because it would include fines, the payment of back taxes and other hurdles for illegal immigrants who would obtain legal status, the officials said.
The president’s plan would also impose nationwide verification of legal status for all newly hired workers; add visas to relieve backlogs and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay; and create some form of guest-worker program to bring in low-wage immigrants in the future.
A bipartisan group of senators has also been meeting to write a comprehensive bill, with the goal of introducing legislation as early as March and holding a vote in the Senate before August. As a sign of the keen interest in starting action on immigration, White House officials and Democratic leaders in the Senate have been negotiating over which of them will first introduce a bill, Senate aides said.
Senator Rubio has been among that group of Senators, but it’s unclear whether what he talked about over the weekend are his ideas or something that reflects what they may end up aiming for when legislation is introduced. It strikes me, though, that it would be politically smart for the Democrats to work with Rubio specifically because he may be the one voice on Capitol Hill that can get his fellow Republicans in the House and the Senate to sign on to some kind of comprehensive deal. Such a deal would have to include border security in order to satisfy the right, but it strikes me that securing the border is, in general, a good idea to begin with and it makes perfect sense to include it as part of an overall immigration package.
Can Rubio succeed here? Well, as Jennifer Rubin notes, it’s not going to be easy:
Now the challenge is to turn a bold proposal into action and legislation. He will need to gather allies, explain the plan to conservatives, rebut nativists’ claims, reach across the aisle and shepherd through legislation. The quick thumbs up from Norquist is a good sign that the time may be ripe on the right for a plan like Rubio’s. The worst result would be that Rubio offends the hard right but disappoints those who support his plan, leaving him politically isolated and appearing inept.
If he can pull it off, he will have answered the main concern about him, namely that he is all talk and no action. He will have demonstrated political courage and helped his party to get past a huge stumbling block to electoral success. He will have also demonstrated that the loudest and most extreme voices do not control the party.
This is not just a test for Rubio. It will be a test for the party as a whole and for each potential leader of the party. Who decides to play to the exclusionists, and who shows moxie in joining his effort? It is a defining moment for the right.
Rubio is offering the GOP a potential path out of the wilderness on immigration. He will no doubt be condemned by many on the far right just as vigorously as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and George W. Bush were denounced when they tried to do similar things seven years ago. If Republicans listen to Rubio, though, they’ll realize that it’s time to stop listening to the talk radio guys and the xenophobes who clearly don’t like immigrants to begin with, and start legislating in a responsible manner. Let’s see if they listen to him.