WASHINGTON — Crushing any doubt that he stands behind a sweeping immigration reform bill, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio went on seven TV news programs Sunday and sold the legislation as tough on enforcement while "fair and compassionate" toward 11 million people in the United States illegally.
On ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, plus Spanish-language Telemundo and Univision — a seven-show first for anyone — Rubio insisted the plan to be unveiled early this week does not provide "amnesty," seeking to blunt criticism from fellow conservatives as he played up more border security and the costly, 13-year process it would take for someone to become a citizen.
"It puts in place the toughest enforcement measures in the history of the United States," the Republican senator declared on CBS's Face the Nation.
Rubio is helping write the legislation with a bipartisan group of seven other senators but is the most crucial figure due to his clout in the GOP and his national profile.
He has sent mixed signals in recent weeks — partly to demand an open debate, partly to mollify conservatives — but Sunday's TV blitz made clear Rubio is ready to put his political capital on the line, even as he said he could still walk away if enforcement measures are weakened in negotiations.
It will not be easy. Asked on ABC's This Week if Rubio's sales pitch worked, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., flatly said: "No, I'm not convinced. I know Senator Rubio's heart is exactly right. And I really respect the work of the 'Gang of Eight.' But they have produced legislation … that will give amnesty now, legalize everyone that's here effectively today and then there's a promise of enforcement in the future."
On Fox News Sunday, Rubio said the overhaul would not be a repeat of the last big immigration law, in 1986, which failed to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants: "This is not amnesty. Amnesty is the forgiveness of something. Amnesty is anything that says, 'Do it illegally. It's going to be cheaper and easier.' "
The bill would require people who arrived in the country illegally or overstayed a visa to pass a criminal background check, pay a fine and wait a decade to seek a green card. It would then take another three years for naturalization, making for a 13-year path to citizenship.
"You'll have to be gainfully employed, you won't qualify for any federal benefits and, then after all that, you don't get to apply for anything until the enforcement mechanisms are in place," Rubio said on Fox.
"We're not awarding anything," he added on ABC. "All we're giving people the opportunity to eventually do is gain access to the same legal immigration system, the same legal immigration process that will be available to everybody else."
The legislation provides at least $5 billion for more border security and would require 100 percent "awareness" at the southern border with Mexico and a 90 percent effectiveness rate. It mandates that all employers use an electronic verification system, phased in over five years, to check the legal status of workers.
Rubio repeatedly referred to "triggers" in the bill that would ensure enforcement is working. The first one would come six months after enactment of a law and require the federal government to create a border security plan and determine where new or additional fencing is needed. After those plans are certified, people can begin to apply for "Registered Provisional Immigrant Status," which would grant work permits.
But only people who have been in the country prior to Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible. Verifiable documentation would be needed to substantiate physical presence before that date. Many of the fine details remain unclear.
The major trigger comes after a decade. If heightened border security, employee verification and a system to track when visa holders are supposed to leave the country are working, then people could apply for green cards.
"I am optimistic that we can get the votes to get this passed," Rubio said on CBS. "But it will be a long process, hopefully a very open process, and I think it will take some time, but I believe we can get there." The House is working on its own bipartisan version of an immigration bill.
On several shows, Rubio was asked to explain his own changing views. As a Senate candidate in 2010, he adopted the party's harder line on immigration, saying in a debate that "earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty." Rubio responded Sunday saying he is against "blanket amnesty," though past attempts at immigration reform also called for fines and other steps.
He was also asked how immigration reform would help or hurt him if he runs for president in 2016. "You know, I haven't even thought about it in that way," Rubio said on CNN. Host Candy Crowley replied: