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With Sen. Marco Rubio's immigration ideas in the middle, prospects for reform look promising

WASHINGTON — The plan calls for tougher border enforcement and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Undocumented residents would have to learn English and pay fines — to "get right with the law before they can get in line and earn their citizenship."

That effectively summarizes Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's immigration proposal, which he outlined over the weekend.

But the words were spoken by President Barack Obama in 2010, illustrating why prospects for immigration reform are better than ever.

Not long ago it would have been political suicide for a Republican with national ambitions to jump into the complex and highly emotional immigration debate. As a U.S. Senate candidate in 2010, Rubio adopted a harder line than the middle ground he seeks today.

Yet instead of enduring charges of shifting for political benefit, Rubio's Hispanic background and national stature among conservatives is scrambling the dynamics of the debate. On Monday, Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate, added his name to a growing list of backers of the framework Rubio shared with the Wall Street Journal.

"No offense to John McCain and Lindsey Graham," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant group America's Voice, referring to two other Republican senators working on the issue. "But Marco Rubio, now we're adding some star power and some street party cred. It's huge. Rubio's throwing down. I've long thought that we couldn't get this done unless he stepped out in a leadership role."

In an interview Monday with the Tampa Bay Times, Rubio emphasized enforcement measures and improving the legal immigration system over doing anything about millions of people living in the United States illegally. But his plan — like Obama's — envisions a way for those people to one day become citizens.

Rubio said illegal immigrants would have to pass criminal background checks, pay fines, show they have "assimilated" into the culture and go through an unspecified probationary period before getting in the back of the line to seek a green card, which leads to citizenship.

In other words there would be a pathway but not a special path. "I don't like the fact that we have 8 or 10 million people undocumented, either," Rubio said. "But that's what we have. That's the hand we've been dealt with and so we have to play this hand as best we can."

Rubio said he hasn't supported deporting people, as Romney said on the campaign trail, or giving "blanket amnesty," adding, "somewhere between those two positions is a solution which I think becomes easier to accomplish if we have real enforcement mechanisms in place and a modernized legal immigration system."

He pointed to parts of Europe, where immigrants are trapped in a kind of citizenship limbo. "They have little stake in that country's future and that's not a good thing and I don't think that's what Americans want either."

The White House is preparing to release a proposal and the details of the pathway to citizenship will be critical, though officials Monday indicated it would line up with the "earned" citizenship Rubio envisioned.

Even if Rubio's is more restrictive, he'll have to fight charges of amnesty.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, wrote Monday in the National Review Online that the concept of "earned citizenship" is a Democratic ploy. Rubio, he said, is "doing the Left's heavy-lifting for them."

Overall reaction from the right has been generally positive since the Journal story first appeared online Friday evening. "I support the principles he's outlined: modernization of our immigration laws; stronger security to curb illegal immigration; and respect for the rule of law in addressing the complex challenge of the undocumented population," Ryan wrote on Facebook.

Rubio's stature in the GOP will shield him from some criticism on the right and give room for other Republicans to get on board. The move comes after an election in which Obama took 71 percent of the fast-growing Hispanic vote, more than he did four years ago.

Prospects for reform are also helped by the slowdown in illegal immigration. In 2007, when the last attempt at reform collapsed, there were a record 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

In 2011, the number was down to 11.1 million, essentially the same as the previous two years. Economists say the poor U.S. economy has a lot to do with it, though Obama also points to better enforcement.

"Ultimately there's a realization that we're tired of this issue," Rubio said. "We want to get it done because there are so many other major issues confronting our country."

Don't expect Rubio to get too cozy with Obama. In the Wall Street Journal interview, he accused the president of "poisoning the well" of reform by granting work permits to children of illegal immigrants last year.

Rubio had been working on legislation when Obama stepped in. Not wanting to get beat again, Rubio offered his outline ahead of Obama's announcement. Now he'll be under pressure to put those ideas into legislation.

Rubio maintained it is a work in progress: "There are a lot of competing interests here that have to be balanced. So I've spent a lot of time talking with people and there's probably more adjustments we're going to have to make."

Contact Alex Leary at leary@tampabay.com.

With Sen. Marco Rubio's immigration ideas in the middle, prospects for reform look promising 01/14/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 14, 2013 11:29pm]
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