By Alexander Bolton - 01/20/13 10:00 AM EST
Sen. Marco Rubio is rallying conservatives behind immigration reform with a set of principles he unveiled this week and has promoted with a media blitz.
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.
When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for sweeping immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, in 2006, he was pummeled by conservative critics. Former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) received similar treatment when he followed in McCain’s footsteps a year later.
Rubio received a much warmer reception from conservative pundits this past week.
Conservative radio talk and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity called Rubio’s proposal “probably the most thoughtful bill that I have heard heretofore” during an interview with the senator Thursday.
On Wednesday, Bill O’Reilly, host of Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor”, told Rubio during an appearance on his show: “I like your program. I think it’s fair.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who for years has hosted a weekly meeting of conservative activists leaders, called Rubio’s plan a “step in the right direction.”
It’s a good sign for the prospect of moving immigration reform through the 113th Congress because liberal advocates also like the plan.
“I think it’s encouraging. He’s talking about the basic elements of reform shared by pro-reform Republicans and the vast majority of Democrats,” Sharry said.
Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called Rubio’s proposal “generally encouraging.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill are hungry to move immigration reform to boost their numbers with Hispanic voters, who are the fastest-growing major bloc of the national electorate.
They see Rubio, a Cuban-American conservative with Tea-Party bona fides, as a natural person to lead them on the issue and provide political cover for their right flank. Republican senators appear poised to rally behind Rubio’s principles when they return to Capitol Hill next week.
His plan received an important endorsement from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), perhaps the most respected policy wonk in the House Republican conference, earlier this week.
“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.”
Rubio met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on the issue before the Senate left town for the two-week recess earlier this month. The so-called Gang of Eight on immigration reform includes: Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.).
The most controversial element of Rubio’s package, which he first outlined in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, addresses the estimated 12 million immigrants now living in the country illegally.
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.
Rubio’s plan would change immigration quotas to give more preference to skilled workers relative to immigrants who apply for legal status on the basis of a family member already living in the country.
It would create a guest worker program to meet the needs of farmers, who rely heavily on illegal-immigrant labor during the harvest season.
It would implement the E-Verify program, which would require employers to check the immigration status of potential hires through an immigration database.
Critics of proposals granting legal status to illegal immigrants say Rubio’s blueprint is unacceptable, based on what they know. So far Rubio has only sketched out his vision in interviews and has yet to introduce legislation.
“We have some major issues with what it looks like he’s doing in some areas. This is not something we would endorse,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs at NumbersUSA, a group that opposed past efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“If this is done in one big bill, it’s not something we can support,” she said. “We certainly do not support amnesty for the 11 to 12 million people here illegally.”
Rubio has proposed moving his proposals piecemeal although he has yet to persuade McCain and Graham to adopt that strategy.