Sen. Marco Rubio's broader vision for immigration reform suggests the Florida Republican is poised to play a significant role in resolving one of the nation's most difficult issues. The senator's embrace of a comprehensive approach that includes a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants is reasonable and pragmatic. While Rubio already faces criticism from other conservative Republicans, this is the type of leadership that could lead to a bipartisan compromise and even bigger things for the state's junior senator.
In a series of recent interviews, Rubio has moved toward the middle on immigration reform and sketched out sensible goals. He wants to increase the number of visas for skilled workers to bring in more engineers and other high-tech professionals who are in demand. He wants to increase the number of visas for farmworkers, acknowledging the reality that it is difficult to find enough workers in Florida and elsewhere to harvest the crops — and that many of those workers are illegal. Rubio also recognizes that winning Republican support requires including tighter border controls and increased enforcement, but he sounds flexible on when and how all of that is accomplished.
Most importantly, Rubio now wants to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in this country. For too long, too many conservatives have refused to recognize that it is impossible to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and unreasonable to force them to return to their native country and then apply for U.S. citizenship. There will be many difficult details to work out, and Rubio's vision of some new legal status along the path to citizenship has to be fleshed out. But he has opened the door for meaningful negotiations and a compromise with congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama, who have the same broad goals.
Of course, there is a political reality to Rubio's evolvement on immigration policy. Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate in the November election, and they are the nation's fastest growing minority group. Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney, who talked of "self-deportation'' during the campaign, won just 27 percent of the vote — lower than any Republican presidential candidate in the previous three elections. More Republicans are recognizing that the party's harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric is not a prescription for future success at the polls.
Second, Rubio has learned the consequences of waiting too long to move on immigration legislation. Last year, he worked on a concept to create a legal status for more than 1 million younger illegal immigrants but never unveiled specifics. Obama outmaneuvered him, issuing an executive order that enables younger illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to apply to remain here legally and work if they are high school graduates or served in the military. Now Rubio has moved back to the forefront, ensuring that he will have a meaningful role in developing comprehensive legislation.
Rubio's evolvement on immigration better reflects the political skills and sensibilities he displayed as speaker of the Florida House than some of his partisan rhetoric in Washington. He supported in-state college tuition for the Florida children of illegal immigrants while in Tallahassee, and he was open to the ideas of others without abandoning his conservative principles. The tea party followers who helped propel Rubio to the U.S. Senate in 2010 will not be happy, and he already is getting pushback from some conservative senators. But the election results signaled that most voters are hungry for sensible, centrist compromises that move the country forward. Rubio got the message, and his broad vision for immigration reform is an encouraging sign that he is prepared take on a leadership role in developing a bipartisan consensus.