The White House has said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s immigration plans, which could legalize the status of some of those unlawfully in the country, "bode well for a productive, bipartisan debate."
A reason for that optimism: Rubio’s ideas and comments closely mirror those of President Obama in a 2011 policy speech in El Paso Texas.
"This is the Rubio-Obama immigration plan," Mark Krikorian, head of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, told Mother Jones.
"There’s nothing substantive in Rubio’s proposal that wouldn’t immediately be agreed to by President Obama," he said, noting that President George W. Bush proposed a similar plan in 2006 that many Congressional Republicans helped kill.
With the Republican Party far more opposed to immigration reform than Democrats, conservative commentators have praised Rubio for his boldness. But they’ve also glossed over the fact that Obama proposed similar ideas.
Not only do Rubio and Obama’s plans create a similar type of amnesty for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, the two politicians have used similar language.
Here’s Obama unveiling his plan in May 2011, relatively little-reported at the time:
"Those who are here illegally, they have a responsibility as well. So they broke the law, and that means they’ve got to pay their taxes, they’ve got to pay a fine, they’ve got to learn English. And they’ve got to undergo background checks and a lengthy process before they get in line for legalization. That’s not too much to ask."
Here’s Rubio in the Wall Street Journal on the undocumented:
"They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check...They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they’ve been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country."
Rubio doesn’t consider his plan a “blanket amnesty” because immigrants seeking legal residency would have to pay penalties. Many conservatives, however, describe any proposal as amnesty if it doesn’t require the immigrants to leave the country, known as “self deportation.”
Neither Obama nor Rubio have issued bills. So it’s unclear what the real specific policy differences would be on many of the finer details, although the two appear to disagree on the effectiveness and need for more border security.
Recent news reports say Obama now wants a "pathway to citizenship" for the undocumented. But details about the latest Obama plan are even scarcer than details of Rubio’s proposal.
Also, national reporters described Obama as seeking a "pathway to citizenship" in May 2011. But he never said that phrase in his speech or his written plan. Obama never specified what "legalization" is. Even if Obama has changed his mind, it’s a good indication the president and Rubio agree far more than they disagree about "legalization."
The two did have a disagreement regarding a pathway to citizenship vs. a pathway to legal residency regarding the proposed DREAM Act, which would allow those brought to this country as children to legally remain if they go to college or the military.
Obama wanted a pathway to citizenship. Rubio called for a residency pathway. Rubio shelved his plan, he says temporarily, after Obama used the framework of the Republican’s plan in an executive action that stopped deporting these young people.
More broadly, the president and Rubio share similar policies and rhetoric regarding the need for more farm workers.
Rubio in the Journal: ""The goal is to give American agriculture a reliable work force and to give protection to these workers as well."
Obama in May: "We need to provide our farms a legal way to hire workers that they rely on, and a path for those workers to earn legal status."
Both Rubio and Obama have said that businesses should be punished for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. And they believe this protects lawful workers as well as the immigrants.
Rubio in the Journal: "When someone is [undocumented] they’re vulnerable to being exploited."
Obama in May: "Also, because undocumented immigrants live in the shadows... they’re vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses that skirt taxes, and pay workers less than the minimum wage, or cut corners with health and safety laws."
Both Rubio and Obama want more highly skilled immigration.
Rubio: "I don’t think that in the 21st century we can continue to have an immigration system where only 6.5% of people who come here, come here based on labor and skill. We have to move toward merit and skill-based immigration...I don’t think there’s a lot of concern in this country that we’ll somehow get overrun by Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs."
Obama: "Our existing policies provide limited avenues for talented and industrious individuals to work and reside in the U.S. For example, each year, we provide approximately 400,000 visas to foreign-born students seeking to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities, but then force them to leave the country to compete against us when they graduate. In addition, it is difficult for talented entrepreneurs who wish to start companies and create jobs in the U.S. to enter and remain in the country."
One obvious difference, at least regarding their rhetoric, appears to be the issue of border security. Rubio says more needs to be done.
Obama says his administration has and is doing enough. In May, he said that border enforcement increased on his watch while construction proceeded on a border fence (something that some in the crowd hated. He suggested opponents want to "move the goal posts" on border enforcement to delay real reform.
"They said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol," he said. "Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics."
The moat-and-alligators comment enraged Republicans at the time. They said rhetoric like that showed Obama was more interested in scoring political points and giving speeches. Indeed, after Obama released his plan, the White House largely stopped talking about it.
Now Obama is moving again on immigration reform but White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the Republican senator’s plan was a good start.
Carney: "The reports about Senator Rubio’s ideas bode well for a productive, bipartisan debate, which we hope will start in earnest soon after the inauguration. We hope that it signals a change in the Republican approach to this issue, because if we are going to get this done, it’s going to take more than just a handful of Republicans working across the aisle. It’s a kind of thing, comprehensive immigration reform, that requires significant bipartisan support. And he hopes that this augers well for the future."
Why not? It’s pretty much what Obama asked for 20 months ago.