Rubio: Immigration Is a Question of Human Rights and Dignity

The Florida Republican gives a glimpse of a way forward with Latinos. But to make it work, the GOP may have to abandon its law-and-order rhetoric.

Marco Rubio played down his political ambitions during an interview at the Washington Ideas Forum Thursday. Nonetheless, his remarks on immigration at the conference made clear why so many in his party see him as a central figure in its future.

 Washington Ideas Forum Conversations with leading newsmakers. A special report

"My trip to Iowa has nothing to do with 2016," Rubio told National Journal's Major Garrett, dismissing speculation about whether he might begin a bid for presidency two years from now. "It has to do with Governor Branstad, and I accepted that invitation when I fully expected Mitt Romney would be the next president of the United States and believed that in 2016 we'd be working for his reelection." Rubio is scheduled to attend "Governor Branstad's 2nd Annual 65th Birthday Party event!" on Nov. 17 at Adventureland Park in Altoona, Iowa.

Whether he decides to seek higher office or not, Rubio is already one of the most compelling voices on the Republican side of the aisle when it comes to the need for comprehensive immigration reform. He's also clearing the way for a new Republican rhetoric on the topic.

"It's really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on healthcare if they think you want to deport their grandmother," Rubio said. "I mean, it's very difficult to get people to listen to anything else you are saying."

Tone here is as important as policy, he said: "I think you see the change in that tone hopefully among people around the country on this issue. That you can be for legal immigration -- you don't have to be for amnesty -- but you also need to understand that we're speaking about human beings."

"And I think when you know these people, if you're in the Hispanic community, it you live where I live in the city of West Miami -- where virtually everyone is Hispanic and virtually all of my neighbors came from somewhere else not that long ago -- I mean, I know people that are in this circumstance," he continued.

"I know people who love people that are in this circumstance. My kids go to school with kids who have grandparents or uncles and aunts that are in this circumstance. You know them not as a statistic, you know them as a human being -- a walking, talking person who is in pain and who came here because they were hungry and their kids were starving and their family was, you know, hurting. And they did what any parent would do when faced with that circumstance. They did what they had to do to provide for them. You have to remember that when we talk about this."

Rubio predicted that comprehensive immigration reform might take a while to sort out. It would involved a significant reworking of the present legal immigration system as well as a new strategy for responding to the large number of undocumented immigrants already in this country. That said, there's one area where progress could come quickly, he said: a long-term solution for the so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants were born abroad and brought to this country by their parents as children and raised as English-speaking Americans.

"I believe -- and I've said this repeatedly -- that the issue of kids that are in this country undocumented is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one," Rubio said. "They are more like refugees in that sense than they are like illegal immigration folks. Because they're here through no fault of their own. They're raised their entire life here and they want to go on with their future."

It's a completely different way of talking about undocumented Hispanic immigrants than one hears in other quarters of the GOP, where all the talk is about fences and laws, rather than human need and family ties. But it's also clearly a rhetorical approach that has the potential to help the party regain its standing with one of the fastest-growing groups in the country.



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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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