The group Americans for a Conservative Direction is running ads touting the Senate's "gang of eight" bipartisan immigration reform legislation as a conservative plan that is tough on border security and on undocumented workers trying become citizens. Although Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has done an effective job on dissecting the details of the plan and making the case for immigration reform, the extensive 800-page bill remains a difficult sell to conservative leaders and the American people who do not necessarily view the issue as a top priority.
Former Senator Jim DeMint, now President of the Heritage Foundation, has criticized the bill by referring to the legalization process as "amnesty." Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., pointed out that under the current bill those who are here illegally would be able to access state and local welfare benefits immediately, which could add significant cost to government programs. Rubio quickly responded by saying that "we can and should improve the bill," giving room for further discussion and changes.
Conservative leaders and radio hosts respect Rubio, but hate parts of the bill. The biggest sticking point for some conservatives is the pathway to citizenship, due in part to their fear that it could provide an open door for 11 million future Hispanic voters in key states to align themselves with the Democratic Party.
But this fear is overly cynical and when expressed only contributes to the strained relationship between Hispanics and conservatives. It also makes comprehensive immigration reform tougher to pass. Conservatives must realize that the negative rhetoric and lack of resolution on the immigration issue will surely continue to alienate Hispanics from even considering to vote for the Republican Party. In a recent Gallup poll, over 51 percent of Hispanic voters already identify themselves as Democrat or lean Democrat.
Rubio is making a smart political gamble with a clear understanding that immigration reform needs to be a part of the discussion with the Hispanic community. Even Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., believes that immigration reform must be done, although he may not wholeheartedly agree with the comprehensive bill.
Conservative commentator George Will recently stated that "Washington does not do comprehensive well," and Republicans are concerned about supporting a massive piece of legislation. We saw the lasting negative effects of Obamacare when a 1,000-page document was rammed through in 2009. On immigration reform, key legislators are hoping to take a different route. Rubio wants to make it a transparent process and has stated the need for regular order. He even opened a web page where the American people can provide comments on how to improve the bill. Senators who support the bill have remained patient and constrained themselves from appearing too defensive from attacks on the right and left.
Rubio's careful approach has its risk. Without a sense of urgency, the bill may lose momentum, especially among the American people who are more concerned about a sluggish economy than immigration reform. However, the lengthy process will pay off with improvements to the bill and input from more members of Congress. Republicans and conservatives have their best chance of fixing and modernizing the U.S. visa system and ensuring tough border security; both are issues liberal Democrats would prefer to simply ignore if they were in full control of Congress. In essence, the immigration reform package ensures that both parties benefit and actually get something done. [See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]
While the bipartisan bill has a good chance of getting through the Senate, the burden will fall to Speaker John Boehner and his able Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. They will need to determine whether the House will pass a comprehensive bill or a series of individual measures. So far, it seems as if Goodlatte would prefer the latter, but with a positive note that he wants a solution.
Either way, an antiquated system with a plethora of problems cannot continue. It illustrates how ineffective the government has been in managing and enforcing the outdated visa system, which has created an easy mechanism for those immigrants seeking a better life to come and stay in the United States without consequence. Although conservative leaders may hate the bill, they can agree that fixing the visa system is critical for improving our domestic security situation.
Despite his critics, Rubio has skillfully managed the expectations of many conservatives and effectively made his case for immigration reform, while working with other members to continuously improve the legislation. President Obama should take a lesson from this young Florida senator. He might actually get something done in Washington.