Successful politicians, by definition, look for opportunities to advance themselves and their parties. Occasionally, the right thing to do and the politically expedient thing to do are one and the same.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., last week proposed a compromise on the Dream Act that promises to serve both as a means of partially repairing the relationship between the Republican Party and Hispanic voters and as a way for young people who are American by experience, if not by birth, to legally stay in the country they know as home.
The Dream Act was first drafted in 2001, and was designed to offer individuals who came to the United States illegally as children a path to citizenship if they attended college or joined the military. Since then, it has attracted some bipartisan support, but has fallen short of passage. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., reintroduced the current version but, for the first time in the bill's history, no Republican has stepped up as a co-sponsor.
Rubio's newly proposed version of the bill, which he plans to unveil in the next few weeks, would eliminate the specific path to citizenship for these young people outlined in former versions. But it would still grant them non-immigrant visas, allowing them to live, study and work in the United States while following existing routes toward naturalization. The visas would be available only to high school graduates with no criminal record who were brought into the U.S. before a still-to-be-established cutoff date.
Both those who support and those who oppose the Dream Act have accused their opponents of using the issue for self-serving political purposes. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, suggested that Democrats' interest in providing more immigrants with pathways to citizenship stems solely from a desire for votes. Democrats "see people in this country illegally as undocumented Democrats," he said.
Meanwhile, some immigration reform advocates have criticized Rubio's proposal as a hollow gesture, intended to make the Republican Party seem kinder and gentler to the growing bloc of Hispanic voters without providing any meaningful benefit for immigrants. Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an organization that advocates immigration reform, asked: "Is this really a legislative initiative or a political ploy? If it's about a political ploy, it's about throwing a lifeline to Romney, rather than throwing a lifeline to the dreamers."
I agree that Rubio's proposal is likely to offer Republicans a political benefit. For years, a loud and angry subset of the party's base has demanded that the GOP espouse strongly anti-immigrant positions. While a minority of the party, notably including former President George W. Bush and his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has continued to press for moderation, they have been unable to stop a rising tide of anti-foreign sentiment.
After all, we could eliminate most illegal immigration by making it much easier for foreigners, particularly in neighboring Latin America, to obtain permission to live and work here legally. However, there is no significant support in either party for this course. Democrats are too beholden to their union base, while Republicans who demand that illegal immigrants go home seem to be in no hurry to authorize their legal return.
In seeking to appease their party's anti-immigrant base during the presidential primary season, Republican candidates pushed each other toward increasingly unpalatable positions. Mitt Romney grabbed a spot near the far right end of the spectrum. He promised to veto the Dream Act; suggested that Arizona, known for its draconian approach to immigration, might serve as a model for the nation on the issue; and attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for providing in-state tuition to young illegal immigrants in Texas.
Such statements will not serve Romney well in the general election, and he knows it. At a recent closed-door fund-raiser in Florida, reporters overheard Romney telling supporters, "We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party." He warned that recent polling of the Spanish-speaking electorate "spells doom for us."
Around 21 million eligible voters currently identify themselves as Hispanic. Among registered Hispanic voters, Obama leads Romney 67 percent to 27 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. For Romney, that margin could indeed spell doom. An overly abrupt change of heart on immigration, however, could put Romney at odds with conservative Republicans who already are lukewarm about him.
Enter Rubio. The Cuban-American senator has long urged his party to tone down anti-immigrant rhetoric. This allows him to propose a compromise such as the revised Dream Act without appearing to flip-flop. Despite his insistence that he has no interest in the vice presidency, Rubio's name has become a favorite in the speculative games of the punditry. Romney has so far taken a cautious approach toward Rubio's proposed Dream Act revision. "Governor Romney will study and consider any proposals on immigration from his Republican partners," a campaign spokeswoman said, according to The New York Times.
But just because the proposal may be politically advantageous for Rubio and his party doesn't mean it cannot also be the right thing to do.
Some version of the Dream Act is necessary. Rubio's compromise may be the best hope for now of a bill that can pass, though I would bet against anything happening before the election. As I have written many times, I believe immigration is vital to maintaining America's place as a country of constant innovation and progress. It is particularly easy to support legislation for the benefit of young people who grew up here, attended school here, and are "illegal" through absolutely no fault of their own.
Ideally, I would like a clear route for these young people to become citizens. But they cannot be expected to wait until the political landscape changes enough for such a law to be possible. They deserve the best that we can offer them right now, which is what Rubio's proposal would deliver.
"We have these very talented young people in America who find themselves in limbo through no fault of their own," Rubio said. It's time we offer them a bridge out of that limbo.
And if the Republican Party can build a bridge from its primary-fueled anti-immigration hard line to a more general-election-friendly position at the same time, all the better.
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