Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio drew justifiable criticism from Democrats and his own party following a rather weak response to President Obama’s last State of the Union address. But the young senator, once thought to be, and perhaps still thought to be, a White House aspirant did rise to the occasion by helping to forge a compromise to achieve immigration reform.
The Senate, with 14 Republicans joining all 52 Democrats in support, finally passed an immigration reform bill last week.
How any conservative could call this bill “amnesty” for immigrants here illegally is mind-boggling. The path to citizenship as drawn in the bill would take 13 years and require all sorts of steps and fines and registrations and background checks and work rules. It will be a rather arduous and certainly a thorough process for an estimated 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally.
In addition, in a bow to conservatives, the bill calls for spending $38 billion to hire 20,000 more border patrol agents and to line the southern border with sensors, cameras and a 700-mile fence. These will be expensive and largely unnecessary additions to border security, but these days achieving real gains in immigration law requires concessions to imaginary fears.
A “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group, crafted this bloated bill, but it’s at least a sign of progress.
For decades Congress has avoided touching the issue of illegal immigration. And there has been little leadership from the White House. Former President Bush did try to bring the issue up for discussion, only to be shouted down by his own party. President Obama finally has made the immigration issue a top priority.
But there was another factor as well; something called politics.
Republicans knew for a statistical fact that they got swamped in the last presidential election, when they managed to lose a race against a president riding a sluggish economy and fighting uphill against a nasty tea party element in the right wing of the Republican Party.
But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in addition to his own gaffes, paid the price for his party’s estrangement from minorities and got a slender portion of the African-American and Hispanic vote.
With minorities gaining statistical strength, some Republicans seem to realize that their reluctance to face the immigration issue would make future elections all the more difficult. They had selfish reasons, in other words, for joining in reform.
Thirty two Republicans still voted “no” and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama still used the word “amnesty.” Not so Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, who said, “It reminds us that sometimes we focus so much on how immigrants could change America that we forget that America changes immigrants even more.”
House Speaker John Boehner said he hopes his own “gang” will come up with something and the House will have its own bill.
“We're going to do our own bill through regular order, and it'll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people,” he said.
The House bill isn’t likely to match the Senate version. Alas, House Republicans either lack the math skills to add up voting percentages in the future or they simply care more about ideology than common sense, enlightened lawmaking and, by the way, political preservation.
So let us say it once again. Excepting Native Americans, this land of ours is made up of immigrants, whether they landed on the Mayflower or arrived through Ellis Island or came in as scientists recruited for high-tech industry or, yes, crossed the borders without permission.
Yes, the country should have rules, and yes, there should be strong requirements for those who entered illegally. But after all that, there must be a way.