Rubio Shapes Immigration Into GOP Issue

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks to guests during the Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami, Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. (National Journal)

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is shaping immigration into an issue that Republicans can embrace without getting lambasted by the party base. He is doing it by moving away from discussing whether the current undocumented population should have a path to citizenship and talking instead about the future flow of immigrants into the United States. Both the message and the policy reflect a sensible, conservative viewpoint best expressed in business terms: It's a question of supply and demand.

"If your economy is demanding 2 million people a year to fill 2 million new jobs at a certain level, but you're only allowing 1 million people to come in, and of those only a third are employment-based, you have a supply and demand problem," Rubio said on Thursday at the Washington Ideas Forum sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.

The thorny question about whether to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants is a distraction, he said. "If you don't have a legal immigration system that matches those two things, we're going to wind up in the exact same spot we're in today within a decade."¦ The legalization of people here today is politically charged, but you either do it or you don't and then you argue about how to do it."

Rubio's rhetoric on immigration will be very important in the coming months as lawmakers grapple with one of the toughest policy issues of the decade. His rock-star profile as a potential presidential candidate puts him close to the heartbeat of the Republican Party. He will not embrace any policy that the GOP faithful cannot eventually support. Yet he cares passionately about immigration and about expanding the GOP's appeal to Latinos. Immigration is complicated, emotional. It contains a minefield of loud, unruly constituents. If Rubio can find a way through that minefield, it's a safe bet his colleagues will follow.

Rubio's evolution on the "dreamers" — undocumented youth who were brought to the United States as children — illustrates his savvy in navigating immigration. On Thursday, he characterized them as "refugees," saying they deserved a permanent solution as a matter of human rights. Last year, he floated a modified Dream Act that would legalize those young people but not give them citizenship. That idea didn't go over so well with Republican leaders. He was rescued by President Obama's deferred-deportation program for the dreamers. Rubio then pivoted his message toward business interests and the future flow of immigrants.

Both Republicans and Democrats have difficulty with immigration, Rubio said on Thursday. Labor unions oppose large expansion of work visas, fearing the loss of jobs for U.S.workers. Democrats also insist that immigration policy must contain a family component. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has been the champion of immigration policy as a means to keep families together, an insistence that roiled Republicans in 2007 when the Senate last debated the issue.

In a speech on Wednesday, Menendez outlined a framework that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and ensure family unification. "We must keep families together. Spouses should not be separated from each other or from their children," he said.

Rubio has no problem with that. "I am committed to continuing a family-based system of immigration. I think that's important. I think that's a marker for success. My parents came here in 1956," he said. Rubio is thus embracing the broad vision articulated by people such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who said that the nation's immigration policy should contain both family- and employment-based components.

Expect Rubio to repeat his own story repeat endlessly. The retelling will help Republicans who grew up in a whiter culture envision how they can be conservatives and also embrace a legal immigration system.

In Rubio's Latino-heavy Florida community, everyone came from somewhere else. He knows people who are undocumented. Some of them overstayed visas. Some of them were lured by fraudsters posing as immigration experts who shepherded them into the United States and then abandoned them. Some came for a job because their family was starving and now they are stuck. "I know people who are in this circumstance. I know people who love people who are in this circumstance," he said.

Perhaps most important, Rubio wants Republicans to speak in a nicer way about immigration. Terms like "deportation" or "self-deportation" are not helpful to the party's broader message of fiscal conservatism. "It's really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care if you want to deport their grandmother," he said.

Rubio is not the only Republican urging his party to broaden its message. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Republican Governors Association that the GOP should stop "dividing voters." Minority voters were clearly turned off by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's comments to donors that he didn't need to appeal to 47 percent of the electorate and his recent statements that Obama won a second term because he promised "gifts" to different constituencies, including Latinos.