Even more importantly, his immigration plan could be a turning point for the Republican Party that's been swimming against the demographic tide and subsequently drowning at the polls. If Republicans rally behind the Cuban-American lawmaker's ideas, they would be offering an olive branch to a rapidly growing Hispanic community that resoundingly rejected 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and his hardline stance against illegal immigration. But if the anti-amnesty, extremist voices in the party prevail, the Democratic Party would be poised to strengthen its grip on the Hispanic vote.
"Mending course on immigration is a requirement for Republicans to be able to successfully engage Latino voters," said Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic advocacy group. "If they stay on the path they are on, they are on their way to political irrelevance."
By describing a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday that would smooth a course for both high-skilled immigrants and farmworkers, Rubio answered a question that's dogged his first two years in Washington: Is he willing to lead? Though Rubio has yet to put pen to paper in the form of legislation and delve into the nitty-gritty details, his initiative may dampen criticism that the charismatic politician is more style than substance.
That criticism gained momentum earlier this year when Rubio proposed allowing young illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military to stay in this country. But a bill never materialized and President Obama stole the spotlight by issuing an executive order giving those young people temporary legal status. This time, Rubio appears to be trying to get out ahead of the president, who is expected to talk about his immigration plan in the State of the Union speech next month.
"It's good for Marco Rubio and conservatives to address the issue prior to that, so it doesn't look like they're only reacting to Obama," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the HispanicLeadership Network, a center-right advocacy group. "We need to be pro-active."
Rubio's framework for immigration reform is already drawing praise from prominent Republicans. "Kudos to Sen. Marco Rubio," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Twitter. "Sen. Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system. I support the principles he's outlined," wrote Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the vice presidential nominee in 2012, on Facebook.
Knowing that many Republicans are leery of any plan that allows the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country to earn citizenship, Rubio emphasized to The Wall Street Journal that the path would be arduous. He said undocumented workers would be required to undergo a criminal background check, pay fines and back taxes, and prove longtime residency and knowledge of English before obtaining legal status. Then they could apply for permanent residency and citizenship, though the wait would be longer than if they had come here legally. Border security would also be stepped up.