Rubio’s Half Dream Still an Immigration Nightmare

April 3 (Bloomberg) -- Stirrings in the Senate Republican caucus suggest that some members are seeking a way to smooth the party’s bumpy relations with Hispanic voters.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida says he is working on legislation to enable illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to gain some form of legal status. Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas are said to be working on legislation of their own, to be unveiled at a politically propitious moment.

Democrats are already denouncing the moves as cynical and politically inspired. We’re no fans of cynicism, but there’s nothing wrong with politics being politically inspired. If the Republican senators can use electoral expediency to push their colleagues toward a more sensible approach to immigration, that’s good for the party -- and for every American.

They have some catching up to do. After failing to support President George W. Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform, Republicans voted most recently in 2010 to kill the Dream Act, which would have given legal status and a path to citizenship to young illegal immigrants who serve in the armed forces or attend at least two years of college. This year’s presidential primary has featured calls for “self-deportation” and Arizona-style crackdowns.

With 2 million more Hispanics expected to vote in 2012 than in 2008, when Barack Obama won the Hispanic vote by more than 2-to-1, polls show Republicans facing a potentially decisive deficit among Hispanic voters. A new approach to the Dream Act might help narrow the divide for Republicans up and down the ticket.

Risk of Backfiring

An insincere approach to the Dream Act, however, runs the risk of backfiring. In interviews, Rubio has been unclear about what he’s hatching for Dream-age illegal immigrants (those under 35 who entered the U.S. before age 16 and have spent at least 5 years here), saying he wants “a visa process that legalizes them and wouldn’t prohibit them in the future from accessing the citizenship process, but it wouldn’t give them a pathway to it specially carved out.”

The second half of that sentence gives us pause. The normal pathway to citizenship is being born in the U.S. and/or having American parents. Any process that transforms illegal immigrants into American citizens, or even legal residents, by definition would be “specially carved out.”

That’s what the Dream Act is -- a special process by which young people first gain interim legal status, then permanent resident status, becoming eligible for citizenship. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the law would apply to roughly 1.1 million individuals by 2020 -- a tiny fraction of the U.S. population of 310 million. Its cost is negligible; in fact, the CBO predicts it would slightly reduce the deficit because of increased tax revenue.

Many Dream youths are culturally American but lack legal status. A half-measure that produces only a different sort of legal limbo will not do these young people much good. Nor is it likely to solve the Republicans’ electoral problem.

Rubio has said that Democrats want to keep the issue alive “because they want to use it as a political tool.” That sounds pretty cynical, too, though it certainly has a ring of truth about it. Fortunately for Republicans, all they need to do to remove that “tool” from the Democratic workshop is to stare down the nativists in their midst and vote to help kids who want to dedicate their lives and talents to their adopted homeland.

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