Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has walked up to the third rail of Republican primary politics and grabbed it firmly with both hands. He's taking on immigration, proposing a new, comprehensive way to deal with the issue, and deserves considerable credit for doing so.
The Republican Party has been portrayed broadly, and with some justification, as being "anti-immigrant." A small but vocal minority of party activists, the kind of people who believe immigration policy boils down to sound bites like "What part of illegal don't you understand?" have blackened the GOP's reputation, especially among Hispanics, and caused the party to lose important electoral ground.
To them, the challenge is to find ways to close the door to immigrants even further to those who seek a better life for themselves and their families. In doing so they fail to address the critical question: Should America remain the light and hope of the world, welcoming those who have reached artificial ceilings in their country of origin because of regional, religious, economic, tribal, or political status?
Many Republicans would say "Yes" but their voices are drowned out by those who argue that deportation is the only way to deal with those in America illegally. The louder voices have failed to absorb the lessons of California, where former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson's crackdown on illegal immigration turned the state's growing Latino population off to Republicans for at least a generation.
Rubio's plan is bold, comprehensive, and aimed at modernizing immigration policy to meet the needs of a 21st century America that must trade in a truly global economy. He argues the need for more skills—and merit-based immigration, making the nation a magnet for highly-skilled workers, PhDs, and entrepreneurs from all over the world.
His plan is geared towards work, recognizing that plain fact that most immigrants who come to the United States—legally or illegally—do so in order to find work. The ability to attract labor from overseas is an integral part of economic growth. The question before the house, the one that needs to be addressed, is how to expand opportunities within the law, to settle the outstanding problem of illegals living currently in the United States in a way that is not disruptive and yet does not give preference to those already here illegally over those who wish to come to America legally.
There need to be rules but, as should be clear to everyone, the rules in place now are not working to anyone's benefit. They need to be rewritten, and in ways that offer hope, growth, and opportunity to the most people possible, potential immigrants and native-born U.S. citizens alike.
On their own these are complicated issues, never mind the political pressure that various interests groups are able to bring to bear. It may be that any form of comprehensive reform is too complicated, too complex, composed of too many moving parts to do it all at once. It may be that the issue of border security may need to be resolved first before any movement toward an immigration policy that is firmly and decidedly prowork, proworker, pro-entrepreneur, and progrowth can occur.
Nonetheless, Rubio should be given considerable applause for his willingness to take up the issue. As a Hispanic—he is of Cuban descent—Florida's junior senator has a degree of credibility on the issue other Republicans lack. But he also represents the party's growth wing, the new generation of those schooled in politics and policy by the Reagan Republican Party, willing to try new ideas and have a different outlook on the life of the nation as those that came before them.
It is impossible to predict whether Rubio's plan will succeed or not, all at once or in increments. What is clear, abundantly clear, is that those who support his efforts need to cheer for them as loudly as or louder than those who will criticize them. It's the only hope the nation has for crafting a sane solution to the immigration mess.