Recently Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said something that went largely unnoticed by the media but could foreshadow a seismic shift in the immigration debate.
Speaking with reporters after his keynote speech to the Latino Coalition Annual Economic Summit, the first-term Florida Republican speculated that Democrats may be better off politically with a broken immigration system than with one that actually functions.
"I think there are some in the Democratic Party -- not all -- but I think there are some people in the Democratic Party that think that the immigration issue is more valuable to them unsolved," CNN quoted Rubio as saying. "That it gives them something to talk about, that they can go back to Hispanic communities and make unrealistic promises every two years and win votes."
Rubio added, "And I think for some -- not all -- but for some Democrats, the issue of immigration is better politically if they just leave it the way it is now because they can use it against Republicans."
Rubio's claim is a serious indictment. Given the millions of people whose lives are impacted daily by immigration dysfunction -- including the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens whose families are torn apart each year by the deportation of a loved one -- it follows that if Rubio were sincere about his allegation then he -- and the Republican party -- would be all about fixing the immigration system so that it works for American families and businesses.
Yet, since he arrived in Washington in January 2011, Rubio has seesawed between anti-immigrant and vaguely pro-immigrant positions, but doesn't really seem to have a core on the issue. And he has done little to set himself apart from those in the GOP who continually do what they can to stymie legislative and administrative attempts to ameliorate the harshness of the current law. Nor has Rubio stood up to the anti-immigrant fringe that rabidly opposes anything short of deporting the 12 million undocumented immigrants and virtually locking America's doors to newcomers.
But lately Rubio has been talking immigration. A few months ago be began peddling a watered down version of the DREAM Act -- one which offers undocumented youth temporary immigration status but stops short of providing them a pathway to earned citizenship. More recently Rubio, as part of a bipartisan group of senators, introduced the Startup 2.0 Act; legislation would create visas for entrepreneurs who invest in America and foreign students who graduate from American Universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
Of course Rubio, widely believed to be on Mitt Romney's vice presidential short list, may simply be angling to increase his value to the GOP ticket. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll, President Obama enjoys a whopping 34% lead over Romney among registered Latino voters. Romney is going to need all the help he can get to cut into that margin.
But vice presidential politics might not be the only reason for Rubio's newfound interest in immigration. Coupled with the claim that Democrats benefit politically from immigration dysfunction, his recent positioning suggests a broader pivot toward a more economic/solutions-based approach to the issue. If Rubio starts talking about immigration as a means by which to create American jobs, he and perhaps the GOP as a whole will suddenly challenge the Democrats on a more even playing field. No longer will the party's discussion of immigration be limited to the inane babble about border fences, boots on the ground and "self-deportation," which dominated the GOP primaries. The national debate about immigration would transform into a robust discussion about how to best secure the border, keep American families safe and together, promote America's global economic competitiveness and restore due process.
It depends on whether Rubio -- and his colleagues in the GOP -- are sincere about putting forth serious policy solutions or simply engaged in a cold political move calculated to outflank the Democrats on immigration -- an issue over which the President currently enjoys a commanding political advantage.
Unfortunately, it appears to be the latter. Rubio's DREAM Act, for example, would relegate undocumented youth to a permanent underclass, allowed to physically remain in the U.S., but never to earn their place in the American family. As the French and German guest worker experience demonstrates, this is a recipe for social disaster. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with the current DREAM Act, which, in fact, was a bipartisan bill at one point, and allows young talented people to earn citizenship in the only country they've ever known.
What's more, neither Rubio nor Mitt Romney have publically disassociated themselves from the anti-immigrant nativists -- people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has built his brand by terrorizing Latino neighborhoods in Phoenix, and nativist lawyer Kris Kobach, who Romney embraced during the primaries and claims to directly advise the candidate. Nor has Rubio named a specific Democratic office holder who benefits politically from the current immigration mess or given any evidence to back up his claims, given that it was the Republicans who blocked passage of immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, and the DREAM Act in 2007 and 2010.
It would be wonderful if Rubio led with his heart, not his political self-interests. The GOP needs a courageous leader with the guts to wrench the party out of the dark corner of the restrictionist fringe and into an open debate about immigration policy solutions. In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether Rubio's claim that Democrats benefit politically from America's immigration dysfunction comes from true compassion or is just more hot air from an ambitious young senator.