February 18, 2013
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Comprehensive immigration reform remains one of the few issues where Washington is making process. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) has been shopping his plan to Republicans and Democrats, while in his State of the Union, President Obama made reference to his plan, which he promised to introduce if Congress can’t come to an agreement. Over the weekend, USA Today published the details of this proposal. As the Miami Herald notes, it is “the most-specific comprehensive-immigration reform plan proposed.”

Its provisions should be familiar to anyone following the debate. It would further expand immigration enforcement and require businesses to check the immigration status of new hires within four years. It would also create a two-step process for full legalization. Under the proposal, any of the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants could apply for a “Lawful Protective Immigrant” visa, provided they pass a criminal background check, provide biometric information and pay a set of fees. If approved for the visa, they would be allowed to live and work in the United States for four years before reapplying. They could leave the country for short periods of time, and apply to have their spouses and children covered by the same provisional legal status. Immigrants could be disqualified from the program if they were convicted of a crime that led to a prison term of one year, or several crimes that led to at least 90 days in jail.

With this visa, immigrants could then apply for legal citizenship within eight years as long as they learn English, pay back taxes, avoid criminal offenses and learn the “history and government of the United States.” And from there, of course, legal residents can apply for full citizenship.

As for enforcement, the proposal expands the E-Verify program for employers, and requires Homeland Security to collect regular data on the effectiveness of the program and its effect on the agricultural economy. It also calls for an expanded Border Control and adds 140 new immigration judges to process the flow of people who violate immigration laws.

This plan expands on Obama’s original proposal for immigration reform, first introduced in a May 2011 speech. In turn, that plan formed the basis for Rubio’s proposal, which — accordingly — is broadly similar to this one. The “Lawful Protective Immigrant” visa echoes Rubio’s vision for a streamlined guest-worker program, and both call for stronger enforcement measures on top of what has already been implemented by the administration. To apply for this temporary status, both support a combination of penalties. Here’s Rubio in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:

“Here’s how I envision it,” he says. “They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check.” Anyone who committed a serious crime would be deported. “They would be fingerprinted,” he continues. “They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they’ve been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country.”

Despite these similarities, Rubio has come out against the administration’s proposal. “If actually proposed,” the senator said in a press release, “the President’s bill would be dead on arrival in Congress, leaving us with unsecured borders and a broken legal immigration system for years to come.” Rubio accuses the White House of “failing to secure our borders,” creating a “special pathway” for those who broke the law, and doing nothing to address the “future flow” of immigrants.

This isn’t true. The administration might have a more lenient proposal than the one favored by Rubio, but it fits his criteria for acceptability.

This raises an important question. Is Rubio interested in passing immigration reform, or does he want credit for being the kind of GOP senator who is interested in immigration reform. If its the former, then this is just posturing — Rubio knows that he has to placate the right-wing of his party, which is hostile to anything that comes from the White House. But if it’s the latter, then Rubio might be positioning himself for a break with the administration, and a mournful declaration that — despite his hard work — he just couldn’t come to an agreement. Congress has yet to issue its proposal for immigration reform. But when it does, we’ll see where Rubio falls.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.