Now that we’re in the 2016 election cycle, the many would-be candidates for the Republican nomination are doing the things that candidates have to do before they officially declare. Jeb Bush is launching a PAC and squeezing his dad’s buddies for cash. Rand Paul is buying up Google ads to needle the competition. And Marco Rubio is releasing a book and inserting himself back into the immigration reform debate.
Rubio’s personal arc on immigration policy is fascinating. He was once the GOP’s savior-in-waiting, a high-profile Latino Republican who spoke the language of the Tea Party and could also appeal to the demographic groups that were fleeing the party. He embraced that role and stuck his neck out in 2013 by helping to pass the Senate’s bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. Then everything went to hell. Ted Cruz and the House GOP swung the party back towards its longstanding positions of “border security first” and maximum deportations, the Senate bill stalled while John Boehner sat on his hands, and Rubio found himself in the crosshairs of angry conservatives. Mindful of his own ambitions, he renounced the immigration bill he’d helped pass, tried to make himself look like a prescient critic of his own legislation, and got into heated confrontations with immigration protesters.
And now he has a new book – “American Dreams” – coming out this month, and it contains the NEW Marco Rubio immigration plan… which is really quite similar to the old Marco Rubio immigration plan.
The National Journal got a hold of a copy of “American Dreams” and laid out Rubio’s current thinking on immigration policy. First: border security, because border security must always come first: “Securing the most vulnerable and most trafficked sectors of the southern border, mandatory E‑Verify and the full implementation of an entry-exit tracking system.” After the border is secured, then we “modernize our legal immigration system toward a merit-based one” and create “a limited guest worker program for seasonal workers in the agricultural sector.” Once all those things have been done, then undocumented immigrants in the country can come forward, register, pay fines and taxes, undergo background checks, and wait ten years before seeking permanent residency.
All those things were part of the comprehensive bill Rubio championed in the Senate. The big difference this time around is that Rubio now wants these measured passed piecemeal, instead of as part of one comprehensive bill. And he can’t quite bring himself to be honest as to why that is.
In the excerpts provided by National Journal, Rubio presents the issue as a matter of trust, and blames President Obama and the Democrats for eroding public trust to the point that agreement on a comprehensive package is impossible. “All of these things have left many to conclude that, no matter what enforcement mechanisms are written into law, this administration will simply ignore them. The result is a stalemate on an issue of critical importance."
You’ve probably heard this argument many times before, as it was the standard response from House GOP leaders for why they weren’t going to pursue immigration reform during the last session of Congress. It’s nonsense. The reason there’s been no movement on immigration reform is simple: hardline conservatives don’t want immigration reform, and they have enough clout in Congress to stall progress. That’s exactly what happened to the immigration bill Rubio was once so proud of, and now he’s making excuses on behalf of the same people who derailed what was supposed to be his big legislative achievement.
The fact of the new Republican-controlled Congress means that, for the moment, Rubio is correct that the only hope for any sort of immigration reform is to consider these provisions as separate pieces of legislation. And that plays into the hands of the hardliners since they can get precisely what they want (“border security first”) while retaining the power to derail all the stuff they don’t want (“amnesty,” broadly defined as “anything short of deportation”).
The conservatives are running the show on immigration, just as they have been ever since George W. Bush’s 2005 immigration reform push got tanked. That’s the reality of the situation, and it’s the reason Rubio got burned two summers ago, but his 2016 ambition means he has to keep up appearances and blame everything on Obama.