If Florida's U.S. House Republicans are any guide, the debate will be bleak if the immigration bill proposed by the Senate's bipartisan Gang of 8 ever makes it to the House floor. This legislation would affect the fate of 11 million illegal residents already here and would be central to Florida's economy. Florida's congressional delegation should understand, more than most, that it deserves a fair and honest hearing.
Sen. Marco Rubio's challenge in selling the comprehensive bill to Republican congressional colleagues — including his Florida brethren — is becoming clear, as shown in reporting by the Tampa Bay Times' Alex Leary. Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor told the Times that the bill's path for illegal residents to obtain citizenship amounted to "breaking the law and we're rewarding it." Rep. Trey Radel of Fort Myers said Congress should be talking first about securing the border and then a pathway to citizenship. Rep. Dan Webster of Winter Garden said the timetable for citizenship means that those waiting lawfully to enter the country would be bypassed. "There are people," he said, "who are being leapfrogged if we do that." Rep. Rich Nugent of Spring Hill said he "can't think of any reason why we need to have (an) 844-page (bill) all at once." And Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores said: "No matter how you might color it, amnesty is amnesty."
What bill are they reading? The legislation is not rewarding lawbreakers but recognizing that the law is broken already, that it has not served the nation's security or economic interests and that it must be fixed. The bipartisan Senate plan expressly puts border security first, requiring that new fencing, surveillance and other controls be in place before any new citizenship process takes effect. The bill includes a clear "back of the line" provision that prevents new applicants from jumping ahead of those already in line to become residents. The bill's length is the byproduct of balancing security and the rule of law with the ability of industry and individual states such as Florida to meet their employment needs. And having illegal immigrants wait 13 years, pay fines and back taxes, learn English and pass a background check cannot fairly be described as amnesty.
The Senate group intentionally made the legislation security-heavy to give the Republican-controlled House and border-state lawmakers political cover and to increase the chances for a comprehensive bill, especially in the House. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which took the bill up Thursday, may take weeks to debate some 300 amendments. Florida's House Republicans should use the time to digest the facts and appreciate, as Rubio has, the potential benefit to Florida when immigration reform passes.
On Wednesday, the Social Security Administration reported the immigration bill would help stabilize its trust fund, boost the economy and create 3 million jobs. A poll made public Thursday by a Miami-based voter advocacy group found broad support for creating a path to citizenship in Florida — including in Bilirakis' district that includes all of Pasco County and parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough. And a report released this month by the Immigration Policy Center shows the growing role foreign-born residents are playing in the state's economy and political life.
These are the facts and trends in modern Florida. GOP representatives do a disservice to their constituencies by ignoring the facts and misrepresenting the options. Instead, they should be searching for solutions.