I have mentioned from time to time that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is an constructive voice in the immigration debate. It’s worth the 10 minutes needed to listen to his radio interview todaywith Geraldo Rivera. He raises an interesting point, namely that Republicans can support border control and legalization in many circumstances without being in favor of “amnesty” or actually extending citizenship to illegal immigrants.

The critical exchange touches on both policy and rhetoric:

Rivera: “Why didn’t you support the DREAM act? I don’t mean to give you an open-ended exposition here, an essay, but in short strokes, why not give something to help out the innocent kids?”
Rubio: “That’s not accurate, I do want to help out these kids. The DREAM Act is a way to help them out. It’s like a doctor saying, ‘You have a certain problem and so, here’s the medicine we’re going to give you.’ I think it is the wrong medicine because I think it creates problems. The DREAM Act, as it is currently structured, has a series of problems that not only denies it the support that it needs, but I think would be counterproductive to our goal of having a legal immigration system that works.

“So, for example, it provides for chain migration, which I think is the biggest problem that it creates. So you’re not only helping the kids, but once a kid becomes a citizen or a legal resident and then a citizen, they can now act as an anchor to bring in their entire family through the process. And that means that the DREAM Act is not limited to the kids. It could be expanded to millions of people, which is problematic. But I do think that there is another way to deal with this. And I think that one of the debates that we need to begin to have is there is a difference between citizenship and legalization. You can legalize someone’s status in this country with a significant amount of certainty about their future without placing them on a path toward citizenship, and I think that is something that we can find consensus on and it is one of the ways to address the issue of chain migration. It’s one of the issues that I hope to begin engaging in.

“I point to a case that I think will serve as a catalyst for a reexamination of this whole issue, and that’s the case of a young girl in Miami who about a week ago was about to be deported at the end of this month and she’s the valedictorian of her high school. She arrived when she was 4 years old. She entered the U.S. legally on her mom’s tourist visa. Her mom had to return home to Colombia to get medical treatment, so the tourist visa is revoked and now she’s here without documents. But she has a six-point-something GPA, she wants to be a molecular biologist. Now if she played basketball or if she threw 90 miles an hour, you know we’re going to keep her. But if she’s the valedictorian we’re going to deport her? It makes no sense. And I think people can look at that and say, ‘These kids didn’t do anything wrong. Their parents brought them here. Let’s figure out a way for them to be legalized in this country so they can contribute to our future.’ Likewise, kids that want to serve in the armed forces and so forth. So I do think there are changes that can be made to the concept of the DREAM Act that will make it acceptable and get it passed, and that’s what I hope to be a part of.”
Rivera: “So, will you lead that effort of trying to get Democrats and Republicans to work to craft something to fix this mess?”
Rubio: “Yes, and that’s what we’re trying to do as we speak. Obviously, there are some of my colleagues and in respect for their work on this long before I even got here. They’ve been working on this for awhile, so I’ll wait for them to make their public pronouncements about what they’re working on or what they’re trying to put together. But it is also something we’re trying to build consensus around. Here’s the thing that really troubles me about this immigration debate and that is that it’s become a source of conflict. Immigration has always been, for most of our history, a source of pride. It’s something we brag about. It’s something we have in common because it is very rare to find anyone in this country that is but one or two generations removed from an immigrant. So it is something that has always made up proud as a country. We brag about the fact that we have immigration in this country. Now it is something we fight over. It is something we argue about. It is a source of division and a source of conflict. And so that’s why I’m so careful about how we engage in this because I don’t want it to continue to be a source of conflict. Because if immigration becomes a source of conflict for our country and continues to be, it has an impact that goes well beyond just the immigration.”

Rubio also deftly criticizes Rick Santorum, pointing out (without saying it harshly) that he doesn’t know what he is talking about by insisting that English be the official language of Puerto Rico. (It already is, he points out.) As we saw in the Florida primary, sometimes a well-timed put-down is more valuable than an endorsement.

On substance, Rubio’s immigration position is not that much different from other Republicans (secure borders, support for legal immigration). But his ability to discuss the issue without rancor toward — and in fact, with great admiration for — immigrants is noteworthy. Mitt Romney should listen up and take notes.

But alas for those rooting for Rubio as VP: He once again says he’s not interested in being part of the “process.” If that is the case, and he declines even to be vetted, then we’ll have to take him at his word.

It’s curious why he should be quite so definitive, but perhaps there is good reason for it. A candidate who is not prepared for the national spotlight (e.g., Sarah Palin) or who has issues that will distract from the top of the ticket should take himself out of the process.