Momentum keeps building for significant immigration reform. Business and labor groups have agreed on the outlines of a new visa program for guest workers in low-skill jobs, and a bipartisan group of senators is days away from introducing legislation to fill in the details on a comprehensive overhaul. Soon Floridians will see whether Republican Sen. Marco Rubio will continue to help build a consensus for compromise on immigration or cave under pressure from the most conservative wing of his party.
The agreement on a new visa program between long-fighting special interests illustrates that the art of compromise is not dead and that the time is ripe for immigration reform. Businesses would get a rising number of additional visas for guest workers in low-skill jobs, although not the 400,000 they wanted. Unions received some protection in wages for those workers, although not to the level they have previously sought. But workers also would have the ability to change jobs and seek green cards, important provisions that would prevent them from being held hostage by their initial employers. The details will have to be analyzed, but the framework represents reasonable middle ground and could benefit Florida, with its high number of low-skilled hotel and construction workers.
More disconcerting are Rubio's mixed signals. Instead of celebrating the compromise between business and labor a week ago, Rubio tried to temper expectations and warned that the issue may be moving too quickly. Late last week, his office again sounded less than enthusiastic about reform in responding to a meaningless Republican "analysis" that claimed reform that creates a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants could cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. That is a scare tactic, because any real analysis will have to wait for the specific legislation.
At the moment, Rubio is walking a fine line in trying to be supportive of reform without alienating the most conservative Republicans who helped him get elected. But many of those conservatives are unlikely to support legislation that would create a path to citizenship. Eventually, Rubio will have to choose between being part of the solution or remaining a darling of the tea party crowd that has torn apart the Republican Party and was rejected by more pragmatic voters in last year's election.
The framework of the bipartisan Senate proposal remains promising. It would create a probation period for illegal immigrants who come forward, pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check. There would be an opportunity for citizenship for those who follow the rules. But there also are requirements that security be enhanced along the border and that illegal immigrants go to the back of the line for green cards. All of these requirements are aimed at satisfying conservatives, but they should not throw up so many roadblocks that citizenship is impossible to attain.
When the immigration legislation is introduced, the real work starts on fine-tuning the details. And it will become clearer whether Rubio will rise to the occasion and be a leader in developing a consensus.