I’ve certainly been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of Sen. Marco Rubio’s immigration policy among tough conservatives. From Grover Norquist to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to Sean Hannity, Rubio has gotten favorable to glowing reviews from previously hard-line opponents of comprehensive immigration reform.

Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

On Wednesday he was pitching his plan on staunch conservative Mark Levin’s radio show. At one point (at the 4:30 mark) Rubio called the current system “de facto immigration,” meaning that by not enforcing current law we are already giving those here illegally a free pass. For Levin, this was compelling. (“We have de facto amnesty right now. When he said it, it set a light bulb off. Maybe I am a little slow. I said, ‘Well he’s right, we do have de facto amnesty.’ Which is exactly why Obama wants to really do nothing.”)

In fact the law-and-order argument, as we have pointed out a few times against immigration reform, has always been among the weakest objections. A system with coyote smugglers, forged paperwork, no enforcement and tax evasion is not law and order by any stretch of the imagination. Moreover, if Rubio is on a roll he might want to explain that the pejorative “amnesty” applies only when there is no consequence for failure to follow the law. That is not what Rubio (who envisions a fine, back taxes, possibly community service and no preferential treatment for citizenship) has been proposing — nor has most every other plan out there. That term is a red herring, indicative of a lazy argument.

Why is Rubio having great success so far? I think there are a variety of explanations, only some unique to Rubio. For starters, conservatives are really tired of losing elections; the demographics are compelling and more right-leaning pols and activists are therefore trying to find a solution. Second, Rubio came up with a detailed plan that gives conservatives some comfort in knowing that border issues will come first and there may be a substantial delay between some form of provisional legalization and green-card status or possibly citizenship. This diminishes the concern about encouraging more immigration. Third, this is a good time to tackle the problem since net immigration (thanks to a falling birthrate in Mexico and economic recession) from Mexico is at zero.

Moreover, conservatives like Rubio personally and they know all too well that he may be one of a few top-tier candidates in 2016 who could win the presidency. They at least hear him out and are open to absorbing the arguments for his plan. It is also the case that it is a very well-considered and complete proposal with a little something (e-verification, border security, guest workers, STEM visas) for everyone.

Rubio is smart to solicit conservative buy-in now, before introducing legislation, but he shouldn’t wait too long. He is now out ahead of the president and has some momentum. Ryan, an earlier backer, in the House and Rubio in the Senate should be prepared to introduce legislation in the first half of the year (between the budget negotiations and the summer). Rubio has said he thinks breaking up the legislation into several pieces is preferable, but based on the initial reception a complete one-bill plan may be more attractive.

The important thing for Rubio (and Ryan if he joins in) is not to get into an early, private negotiation with the White House. This was a trap on fiscal issues and it would be so here as well, particularly since the president will surely go to the left of Rubio and blame the GOP if what he proposes doesn’t gain support. Better to put the bill through the legislative process and to solicit agreement from at least some Democrats.

It is interesting how a seemingly insoluble problem (e.g. weaning the GOP off immigration exclusionism) melts away if the timing, the messenger, the rollout and the substance of a solution are well considered. Just as the “never agree to any tax hike anywhere, anytime” faded with the realization that the GOP couldn’t stick to that without the White House and Senate, so too there is now a pathway for the GOP to rescue itself and address a major issue.

I don’t underestimate the force of the hysterical anti-immigration voices. But those who resent any modification of previous positions, no matter how far circumstances have changed and no matter the consequences, will yelp, certainly. But here is an opportunity to shed their own rhetoric and get out of a political cul-de-sac. Let’s see if they are smart enough to grab the opportunity.

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