Rubio and Republicans Can Outfox Obama on Immigration

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Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Could it be that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s moment is also the moment for genuine progress on immigration reform and not incidentally, for a renewed Republican Party?

This is not an unrealistic thought. With the White House moving on multiple legislative fronts, including guns and pending battles over the debt ceiling and required spending cuts, the conservative rising star appears to be staking his claim on immigration reform. To make all this real, though, he will have to put words into action via legislation.

This is not what happened last time around. In 2012, Rubio, a Florida Republican and the son of Cuban immigrants, made a splash when he announced a proposal for a modified Dream Act to enable undocumented immigrant youths to stay in the U.S. But Rubio struggled to bring his party along, and produced no legislation. After a couple of months, President Barack Obama announced an executive action to accomplish a similar goal on a temporary basis. Obama won plaudits from pro-immigration groups and a commanding majority from Hispanic voters in November. Rubio’s proposal vanished in the political mists.

The politics are different this time -- or seem to be. Republican leaders and strategists understand that their party can’t lose Hispanic and Asian votes by more than 2-to-1, as they did in the 2012 elections, and expect to govern an increasingly diverse nation. Immigration reform is, as Rubio says, a “gateway issue” for Hispanics. Until Republicans pass through that gate they will be unable to move to higher political ground.

Rubio told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last week that he favors increasing immigration quotas for skilled workers and supports visas for permanent or seasonal farm workers. He promised a route to legalization for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

How or if those immigrants might one day become citizens is less clear. In what was perhaps a tactical nod to the anti-immigrant wing of his party, Rubio told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly this week that after previously undocumented immigrants get legal status, they will then have “the opportunity to apply for the existing legal immigration system.” Given that the “existing legal immigration system” is not exactly a citizenship machine, this pathway comes with more than a few hurdles.

The only way for Rubio and Republicans to command this issue is to put something in writing -- to cross the legislative threshold.

This comes with real risks to Rubio, especially from the anti-immigrant wing of his party. But if the senator’s effort falters again, as his Dream Act did in 2012, and Obama moves first on immigration reform, Republicans will once again find themselves on the defensive. And the wing of the party that conflates total opposition to Obama with conservative principle will threaten Republicans’ best chance to earn the trust of the nation’s fastest-growing contingent of voters.

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