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The Rubio Trap

Liberal groups have one message for Democrats negotiating with the Florida Republican: Don't give in.


Too close for comfort? Rubio and Schumer(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Liberal immigration activists staged protests last week, not outside the office of a foot-dragging Republican but outside the New York City office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the key Democrats negotiating a bill to give them exactly what they want: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Why give such grief to a friend? Because advocates fear that Schumer and the Democrats will surrender too much, too early in an attempt to broker a deal with Republicans on immigration. “It’s difficult to even get the time of day with Senator Schumer,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of, a left-leaning grassroots Latino group. “We want to say, ‘Whose side are you on?’ ”


With the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators on the threshold of a deal, these activists fear that more concessions will follow. “Democrats need to hold the line on key things,” Carmona said. “Latinos did not vote for half-assed fixes.”

The liberals believe they can threaten to walk away from an immigration bill that falls short, because they assume that in a few years they will get another chance at a better deal. Political pressure to resolve immigration will only increase on Republicans, these liberals argue. “The wind is at our backs,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant-advocacy group America’s Voice.

The “gang” is expected to unveil draft legislation in early April. It will include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a visa program for low-skilled foreign workers, mandatory electronic verification of work authorization, and border-security provisions. The haggling on each of those issues has been going on for months. is one of several activist groups worried that an immigration overhaul will wind up being too harsh to be helpful to the undocumented population. Hefty fees to attain legal status, draconian conditions for citizenship, and detention requirements for any remaining illegal immigrants would mean that millions could be left out and criminalized. To them, the bill can only get worse as it works its way through Congress., the DREAM Action coalition, and other activists staged protests against Schumer to highlight political donations that the senator from New York has taken from the private immigration prison industry. But that’s a smaller point of a larger worry. “He has a reputation as a deal-maker. He’s a deal-maker who people don’t believe at the end of the day he’ll say, ‘That’s too far,’ ” Sharry said.

Liberals want Democrats like Schumer to be a hefty counterweight to Republicans at the other end of the rope. They view Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as dangerous. The most conservative member of the Gang of Eight, Rubio has already threatened to bolt the immigration talks if the overhaul drifts too far left. Rubio issued a statement last week saying that whatever deal the group comes up with “will only be a starting point.”

Rubio’s pronouncements are more closely followed than any other GOP member of the gang. As a Hispanic with 2016 presidential ambitions, he is believed to be the glue holding Senate negotiators together and the key to keeping skittish House conservatives on board.


“We don’t think eight senators should offer a take-it-or-leave-it proposal for the rest of the Senate,” said Alex Conant, Rubio’s spokesman. “We think the other 92 senators should have a chance to improve our proposal, and the House will have its own process.”

The growing fears on the left are that those “improvements” will only drag the final package further from Democrats’ preferences. “We’re not going to coronate Marco Rubio. My God,” Sharry said. “We’ve got a pretty feisty Left.”

The size of the fine against illegal immigrants, the funds devoted to border security, and the waiting time for citizenship are all on the bargaining table. They could inch toward the GOP end of the scale during the legislative process, said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration-policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute. “As far as I’ve heard, Democrats are willing to bargain on the [illegal immigrants’] fine and back taxes,” he said, so long as some type of path to citizenship is ensured.

If and when an accord clears the Senate, House Republican leaders are widely expected to tug that agreement further to the right. Speaker John Boehner will need some kind of political trophy to take back to his conservative troops in exchange for putting a bill on the floor that will require Democratic support to pass. The length and difficulty of that citizenship path can only become harsher, which is exactly what some tea-party conservatives want. “We’re talking about wiggle room of another half a decade on a pathway toward citizenship,” Nowrasteh said.

The most important component of the deal for liberals is the immediate probationary legalization of the current undocumented population, which now sits at about 11 million. “We want an inclusive legalization component. We want 11 million people to come forward, not 8 million,” Sharry said. A few tweaks here and there could dramatically reduce the eligible population, he added. “When is the cutoff date? How high are the fees and fines? What are the exclusions with regard to minor brushes with the law? What are the proof requirements?”

If the number of eligible people goes down too far, Democrats will walk. But if the number stays close to 11 million, the talks will remain fluid. Republicans could limit the types of family members that newly legalized immigrants can sponsor. They could also set lofty border-security conditions in exchange for backing a path to citizenship.

No one really knows how hard the GOP can pull before the rope will break. The activists want to be sure Democrats at least keep up the tension on their end.

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