Strawberry fields forsaken.

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Rubio's Immigration Plan Is Three Steps to Nowhere

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Marco Rubio has a three-step plan on illegal immigration. Trouble is, it's a three-step plan for Rubio to gain the Republican nomination, not to address illegal immigration. 

The first step consists of "enforcement measures," including securing the most vulnerable sectors of the southern border, and implementing a tracking system for visa holders and mandatory E-Verify at workplaces to prevent undocumented immigrants from working.

The second step is to "modernize" the legal system to give priority to immigrants with skills instead of immigrants with family ties in the U.S.

Once these two elements are in place, Rubio says then and only then will the nation be able "to address the most politically sensitive aspect of immigration reform: what to do with more than 12 million people currently here illegally."

If you're running for the Republican nomination and want to stress "security" in the primary, then pivot to talk about "opportunity" or some similar locution for undocumented immigrants in the general election, this is a pretty good way to go about it -- provided Rubio's opponents let him defy logic.

The problem is a gaping hole in the potentially lengthy stretch between Step One and Step Three. The purpose of a mandatory E-Verify system at workplaces nationwide is to make sure that every worker in the U.S. is legally employed. E-Verify is an Internet-based system that compares an employee's I-9 form, documenting employment eligibility, to data from the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. It's designed to weed out undocumented workers. If E-Verify were made universal and mandatory (it's voluntary now), undocumented workers would be exposed and their employers would be required to fire them.

According to Pew Research Center, there are about 8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. labor force, about 5 percent of the total. Some sectors have much higher representation; this population accounts for about one quarter of the workforce in farming.

Removing these workers from the labor force through E-Verify would cause severe disruption not only in farming, but in construction and cleaning and maintenance, among other industries. Moreover, millions of undocumented immigrants depend on the incomes from such jobs. While farmers would have to make do without workers, families headed by undocumented immigrants would be making do without incomes.

So by the time Rubio gets to his Step Three, which he has said could occur years after Step One, his plan has produced labor shortages in key industries and destabilization and destitution among millions. Perhaps the labor shortages could be stemmed with higher wages and better conditions. But what about the destitution and social instability caused by millions deprived of incomes?

In September, Rubio told Fox News:

I don't think it's a decision you have to make on the front end. The first two things you have to do is stop illegal immigration, then second you have to modernize our legal immigration system, and then third you can have a debate about how to even legalize people to begin with,” Rubio said. “And then ultimately in 10 or 12 years you could have a broader debate about how has this worked out and should we allow some of them to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship.

Of course, after "10 or 12 years" of families living with no incomes there wouldn't be many left to provide with green cards. If Rubio is serious about this -- I asked his campaign for clarification but received none -- he is proposing the equivalent of Mitt Romney's self-deportation, preceded by mass evictions and mass privation. 

It's the sort of outcome that makes Donald Trump's systematic mass deportation of 11 million sound reasonable and humane by comparison.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Francis Wilkinson at

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Katy Roberts at