Asked in New Hampshire if he supported a path to citizenship, he said, “I do.” He continued that we nevertheless have to do two things — secure the border (and set up e-verify) and fix the legal immigration system. He points out, “In the 21st century it must be based on what skills you have and what you have to contribute economically.” Then, he said, Americans will be “very generous but responsible.” He would require a background check, paying a fine, paying taxes and receiving legal status; after “at least a decade,” they could apply for permanent residency, and several years thereafter apply for citizenship.
Rubio has the most credible record of any candidate (other than Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was part of the same Gang of Eight) insofar as he vigorously pursued immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship in the Senate. He rightly has pointed out that Hillary Clinton talks a good game but never did anything. He should be able, then, in a general election setting, to deprive the Democrats of one historic advantage in appealing to Hispanics.
But what about the base? If we are talking about Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) or anti-immigration activists, they won’t accept even a path to legal status. Right now, the most strident anti-immigration reform voices are strident, and hence marginalized, on most issues. Provided he stands up to characters like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Huckabee, ignores the heckling from right-wing media and explains his position, he shouldn’t lose too much sleep over his stance. As for the GOP more generally, poll after poll shows Republicans approve of a path to citizenship with exactly the sorts of conditions Rubio outlined. And Rubio also staunchly opposed the president’s unilateral action on delayed deportation, a position that for now the courts have upheld. He can rightly say he wants to do reform the constitutional way.
Rubio would be wise, however, to take several steps regarding immigration.
First, he should take on directly the notion — often voiced in concert with anti-free trade sentiment — that we can prosper by pulling up the drawbridge. He should make the case why immigration reform is a necessity if we are going to grow in a globalized economy. Resistance to immigration reform, he can rightly claim, is one of those 20th-century ideas we should put aside.
Second, he should make the case why citizenship instead of permanent residency (as Jeb Bush and several others have proposed) is the way to go. That may be dicey in a primary setting, but if he wins the nomination, he’ll be glad he said it. In his book on immigration, Bush argued withholding citizenship is an appropriate limitation for those who, after all, did come here illegally. That will appeal to Republicans who fear the GOP will come up short with a raft of new Hispanic voters. Rubio will need to make the case against a two-tier system in which some people are deprived even of the possibility of citizenship.
Finally, Rubio would be wise to make this a case of leadership and spine. Other candidates have blown with the wind, reversing their position or taking safe “no” votes in the Senate (as Sen. Rand Paul did). It is a matter of character and consistency (as a pro-free market conservative), and he should use it as a sword against other candidates who spout economic gibberish or evidence political cowardice. Take on their distortions, and challenge their assumptions. It will show command and smarts. Pro-growth Republicans, donors and high-tech leaders will appreciate his efforts.
Immigration reform, I would suggest, is not the liability issue in the primary its opponents make it out to be. For Rubio, who is lighter on executive experience and has sometimes appeared uneasy about telling the base no from time to time, it is a way of proving his capacity for presidential leadership. For him, for the GOP and for the country, it would be a good thing to make support for principled immigration reform a plus, not a negative, for national GOP candidates.