By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's push for a Republican version of immigration legislation looks like the answer to the election-year prayers of the GOP — and Mitt Romney.
Rubio — telegenic son of Cuban exiles and potential vice presidential pick — is pulling together a bill that would allow young illegal immigrants to remain in the United States but denies them citizenship, an initial step in the drawn-out, divisive fight over immigration policy and the fate of the 11 million people here illegally.
The freshman senator calls his evolving legislation a conservative alternative to the DREAM Act — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors measure. That Democratic-backed bill, which is overwhelmingly popular with Hispanics, would provide a pathway to citizenship to children in the United States illegally if they attend college or join the military. The measure came close to passage in December 2010 but has languished since then.
"We have to come up with an immigration system that honors both our legacy as a nation of laws and also our legacy as a nation of immigrants," Rubio told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
An immigration plan from Rubio, the GOP's best-known Hispanic, could help Republicans make some headway with the fastest growing minority group and its 21 million eligible voters, many concentrated in the contested presidential battleground states of Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.
Democrats maintain a significant political advantage with Hispanics, numbers that were only strengthened by the harsh rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates in this year's primary. Hispanics overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama over Republican presidential nominee John McCain, 67-31 percent, in the 2008 presidential race and they favored Democratic congressional candidates 60-38 percent in 2010, according to exit polling. A Pew Research Center survey out Tuesday showed Obama with a solid edge over Romney among Hispanic registered voters, 67-27 percent.
It's a reality the likely Republican presidential nominee clearly recognizes.
"We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," Romney told a private fundraiser in Florida on Sunday in which he insisted the GOP needs an alternative to the DREAM Act. He warned that a significant number of Hispanics backing Obama "spells doom for us," according to NBC News.
Rubio, who notably called on his party to tone down the anti-immigrant talk earlier this year, is working on a plan that would allow young illegal immigrants who came to the United States with their parents to apply for non-immigrant visas. They would be permitted to stay in the country to study or work, could obtain a driver's license but would not be able to vote. They later could apply for residency, but they would not have a special path to citizenship.
Rubio said he has not talked to the Romney campaign about his plan but definitely would. "He's our nominee and I think it's important for him to feel comfortable with and be supportive of whatever endeavor we pursue," the senator said.
The 40-year-old freshman lawmaker is looking at unveiling his bill in the coming weeks. The early outlines have drawn interest and skepticism from pro-immigration groups. Rubio's political motivation also has been questioned, especially since congressional Republicans and Democrats say legislation as ambitious as immigration is unlikely to be done seven months from the election.
"Is this really a legislative initiative or a political ploy?" asked Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "If it's about a political ploy, it's about throwing a lifeline to Romney, rather than throwing a lifeline to the dreamers."
Joaquin Castro, a Democratic member of the Texas legislature and a candidate for the U.S. House, said Rubio must be troubled by the GOP anti-immigrant talk.
"It must be difficult for a Hispanic Republican to sit there and listen to all of the harsh rhetoric coming from the Republican Party about his community," Castro said in an interview.
Rubio insists that Democrats, who controlled the White House, Senate and House for two years and never completed immigration legislation, are "just panicked about the prospects of losing this issue as a campaign tool."