Shedding his reputation as merely an eloquent conservative rhetorician, Sen. Marco. Rubio (R-Fla.) is stepping up — and out on a limb.


Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks to the Hispanic Leadership Network in 2012. (Joe Skipper/Reuters

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he spells out his plans for comprehensive immigration reform:

 His wholesale fix tries to square — triangulate, if you will — the liberal fringe that seeks broad amnesty for illegal immigrants and the hard right’s obsession with closing the door. Mr. Rubio would ease the way for skilled engineers and seasonal farm workers while strengthening border enforcement and immigration laws. As for the undocumented migrants in America today — eight to 12 million or so — he proposes to let them “earn” a working permit and, one day, citizenship.

 The plan combines border security with an expanded guest worker plan, expanded legal immigration with an emphasis on merit and skills (observing, “I don’t think there’s a lot of concern in this country that we’ll somehow get overrun by Ph-Ds and entrepreneurs”), workplace verification, and a staged path to citizenship.

He got an important sign of support from a key conservative. Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform told Right Turn it was “a good step in the right direction.”

To those who scream “Amnesty!” Rubio can rightly reply “Bunk!” The plan does not wave a magic wand but rather enacts penalties (a fine, community service) on those who came here illegally:

“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.”

 

The special regime he envisions is a form of temporary limbo. “Assuming they haven’t violated any of the conditions of that status,” he says, the newly legalized person could apply for permanent residency, possibly leading to citizenship, after some years — but Mr. Rubio doesn’t specify how many years. He says he would also want to ensure that enforcement has improved before opening that gate.

This is the antithesis of  “amnesty” (which means to absolve of punishment or pardon one for offenses); moreover, it ends the mass lawlessness of the current system of non-enforcement that sustains an underground economy. It puts those “waiting in line” ahead of those who came here illegally. And akin to the Dream Act, it embraces an expedited path to naturalization for those brought here illegally as children.

What it does not do is perpetuate the fantasy that we will deport millions of people. It also does not give into the notion that incrementalism or mere border security will solve this issue. Obviously, Rubio learned his lesson when he was outfoxed last year by the president who leaped while Rubio was contemplating a Dream Act proposal. (“President Obama preempted — or outmaneuvered — him. The president’s executive order offered two-year reprieves from deportation and work permits for young immigrants, and helped him with Hispanics in the election.”) This time he is seizing the initiative.

 Now the challenge is to turn a bold proposal into action and legislation. He will need to gather allies, explain the plan to conservatives, rebut nativists’ claims, reach across the aisle and shepherd through legislation. The quick thumbs up from Norquist is a good sign that the time may be ripe on the right for a plan like Rubio’s. The worst result would be that Rubio offends the hard right but disappoints those who support his plan, leaving him politically isolated and appearing inept.

If he can pull it off, he will have answered the main concern about him, namely that he is all talk and no action. He will have demonstrated political courage and helped his party to get past a huge stumbling block to electoral success. He will have also demonstrated that the loudest and most extreme voices do not control the party.

This is not just a test for Rubio. It will be a test for the party as a whole and for each potential leader of the party. Who decides to play to the exclusionists, and who shows moxie in joining his effort? It is a defining moment for the right.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.