By Mike Lillis - 11/29/12 10:00 AM EST
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is key to Congress enacting immigration reforms next year, Rep. Luis Gutierrez said Wednesday.
The Illinois Democrat, Congress’s most vocal proponent of immigrant rights, is trying to rally lawmakers behind the comprehensive immigration reforms that conservatives in Congress have blocked for a decade. In Rubio — a Cuban-American seen as presidential material in the Republican Party — Gutierrez hopes he’s found the GOP ally who can get a plan over the finish line.
The drive to reform the immigration system has gained steam following President Obama’s election victory, in which he took more than 70 percent of the ever-growing Latino vote.
The “shellacking,” in Gutierrez’s phrasing, marks the second straight presidential election where the Republican candidate attracted only about 30 percent of the Latino vote — a trend that’s prompted GOP leaders to call, post-election, for comprehensive immigration reform next year.
“I’m confident that the president, myself [and] others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this month.
The question of how to approach undocumented immigrants has left Republicans walking a political tightrope in recent national elections. While adopting a hard-line enforcement position risks alienating Latino voters, a more lenient stance is anathema to many in the conservative base.
Rubio entered the fray this year when he floated a plan to allow some high-achieving illegal-immigrant students to remain in the country to study.
His proposal — which was never officially introduced as legislation — didn’t go as far as the Democrats’ DREAM Act, which would have created a pathway to residency and citizenship for beneficiaries. But it would have prevented immediate deportations, and it had the endorsement of Gutierrez.
“Even if it’s watered down and does not grant citizenship, if it stops the deportations and doesn’t exclude them from becoming citizens, [then] yes,” he would support Rubio’s plan, Gutierrez told Fox News in May.
But Gutierrez, who sees a historic opening in the next Congress to pass reforms, no longer wants a piecemeal approach and is calling for sweeping changes that would address all of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States — an approach he says the election validated.
“The call wasn’t to do a little bit,” he said. “The call was to get it done.”
It’s there that Gutierrez and the Democrats might lose Rubio, who wants to enact immigration reform incrementally, beginning with a version of the DREAM Act he intends to introduce in the next Congress, according to spokesman Alex Conant.
“He’s always said the best way to address immigration issues is sequentially, starting with the kids,” Conant said Wednesday.
Conant said Rubio “is not going to prejudge” proposals for comprehensive reform. But he also has no plans to back them.
“The senator’s focus is going to be on his alternative to the DREAM Act,” Conant said.
A number of leading Republicans have said the nation’s borders must be secured before Congress considers any moves to keep undocumented immigrants in the country legally. But Rubio thinks border security and the DREAM Act are “unrelated.”
“It’s more of a humanitarian issue,” Conant said of the children who were brought to the country illegally. “They don’t have a legal claim to be here, but they do have a claim on our conscience.”
Rubio is on the shortlist of Republicans thought to be in contention for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. That dynamic could complicate Rubio’s push for immigration reform, as he could hurt his standing with the GOP’s conservative base if he strays too far from the party line.
Gutierrez, however, is hopeful that Rubio will look beyond any presidential aspirations to help win the comprehensive reforms that have eluded Congress for years — and the earlier, the better.
“Here’s my belief: He’s smart and he gets it,” Gutierrez said. “And maybe more important than that, I’m hopeful that he’s a friend and an ally, because he’s necessary.”