Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Thursday that he supports the Dream Act in some form. He wants undocumented students to have the chance to stay, but he doesn't want to hand them citizenship on a platter. He's splitting hairs on the legalization front: How does one attain legal status in the long term without gaining a permanent visa? It's not clear. But he also is opening the door to something of a small solution for some of the illegal immigrants in the country.
“I do want to help out these kids. The Dream Act is a way to help them out,” Rubio said in an interview with Geraldo Rivera. He cautioned that he does not support the current version of the Dream Act because it would afford a clear path to citizenship for some undocumented students. But he is working with his Senate colleagues to find a way to “legalize someone’s status in this country with a significant amount of certainty about their future without placing them on a path toward citizenship.”
Rubio is in the political crosshairs of immigration policy. He is a true conservative who values the rule of law and opposes amnesty. He's also a Latino who personally understands the community's daily struggles with immigration rules.
The harsh political rhetoric surrounding calls to crack down on illegal immigration hurts all Latinos' ears, legal or not.
Rubio needs to, and is trying to, change the dynamics of the conversation. Republicans have a hard time expressing support for anything that looks like amnesty, and the Dream Act has been labeled as such by its opponents. Latinos criticize Rubio for not directly supporting the bill. Speaking before the Hispanic Leadership Network last year, Rubio was interrupted by protesters as he said: “I don’t want them to leave," in reference to the so-called Dream Act students. "I want them to stay.”
At that point, he hadn’t reached out to his Senate colleagues on the issue.
Now Rubio is informally chatting up fellow senators trying to achieve consensus, some of whom got burned in attempts to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007. (It’s worth noting that one of those victims was former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., whose seat Rubio now holds. Martinez, who resigned in 2009, went further than Rubio in supporting an earned legalization program for illegal immigrants. He was harshly criticized on the right for his stance.)
“Today in order to get more attention or stand out above the crowd, you have to say outrageous things,” Rubio told Rivera. The polarization happens on both sides of the issue. For example, he said, advocates of legalization programs can get a little testy with lawmakers who insist on the rule of law. “If you don't agree on the specific law that they support, word for word, then they use terms like ‘anti-immigrant,’ ” Rubio said. On the other hand, he said, “I also don’t believe that because you are in favor of reforming our immigration system, that makes you a supporter of open borders.”
Rubio is nowhere near crafting legislation on the Dream Act, but there is a solution hanging out there should he want to take it up.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would give certain undocumented college students nonimmigrant visas. Undocumented students would not have a path to citizenship under her proposal, which also would give work visas to foreign engineering and science grads. But they could get their degrees while in the country legally and then apply for work visas should they find an employer sponsor.
To date, the bill does not have any Republican cosponsors, but Lofgren says she understands that the political atmosphere makes it too toxic for them to do so now. Maybe later. Rubio, if he continues in this vein, could nudge the debate in that direction.