Rubio, Senate ‘Gang of Eight’ unveil ‘tough but fair’ bipartisan immigration deal

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, along with seven Republican and Democratic colleagues Monday, released what they called a “tough but fair” immigration-reform plan to tighten border security, increase guest-worker permits and give a pathway to citizenship for millions of those who are unlawfully in the country.

The five-page plan from the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” contains most of the key concepts Rubio touted over the past month, winning support from conservative commentators. The senators, still working on the ever-important specifics, want to draft legislation by March and vote on it by August.

The most-controversial proposal: giving a pathway to residency — and even citizenship — to many of the estimated 11 million immigrants unlawfully in the United States. An estimated 825,000 live in Florida.

While some conservatives call it amnesty, Rubio says it’s not because immigrants would be penalized. They would have to pay fines, back taxes and undergo a criminal background check — a similar proposal made by President Barack Obama in May 2011.

“This is a big deal,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. “This is an important development.”

Rubio said lawmakers have little choice but to legalize the immigration status of those who came or remain here unlawfully.

“We can’t round up millions of people and deport them,” Rubio wrote Sunday in the Las Vegas Review Journal, the home newspaper of Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid.

“But we also can’t fix our broken immigration system if we provide incentives for people to come here illegally — precisely the signal a blanket amnesty would send,” Rubio wrote.

Those undocumented immigrants allowed to stay would remain under a “probationary legal status” for an as-yet-undetermined period. They wouldn’t have access to welfare during that time. Nor would they be eligible for a green-card until 1) those who followed the rules get their chance first and 2) The borders are verified as secure.

The border-security verification, according to the senators, would be made by “a commission composed of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border.” However, the commission’s findings might be only advisory.

Republican concerns about border security and amnesty helped scuttle a 2006-2007 immigration plan, which closely mirrors this proposal, said Arizona Sen. John McCain who unsuccessfully pushed for that legislation with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. He said Republican resistance to immigration reform has kept Hispanics away from the GOP.

Since 2007, popular support for immigration reform has grown, said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. A new national FOX News poll found that 56 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of independents and 74 percent of Democrats believe in a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

“For the first time ever, there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform, than supporting it,” said Schumer, who cautioned that there are still “loads of pitfalls.”

Among the plan’s grab-bag of ideas: give special consideration to farm laborers, high-tech workers and young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children. The latter proposal has echoes of the DREAM Act for some college- and military-bound undocumented immigrants. Immigrants who receive “a PhD or Master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math from an American university” could get a green card.

The Senate legislation, whenever it’s drafted, will also spell out: how the visa process would be streamlined, what new types of work permits would be available, how the government plans to stop businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, how long people would wait for citizenship, how the border is declared secure, and roughly how much it would all cost.

Parts of the proposal sound expensive: More radio and drone surveillance, better real-time computer tracking of immigrants to ensure they don’t overstay visas, a new employment-verification system and continued construction of a border fence.

The senators have been meeting since the November elections, but only this month did details emerge as Rubio became a leading voice for the effort, especially in conservative circles where he holds sway.

This effort, whether it succeeds or not, is a milestone in Rubio’s 2-year-old Senate career. It keeps Rubio, a GOP frontrunner for president in 2016, at the center of the political action.

Rubio, a Cuban-American son of immigrants, is his party’s most high-profile Hispanic and grew up and lives in one of the nation’s largest melting pots, Miami-Dade County.

“I live surrounded by immigrants,” Rubio said. “My neighbors are immigrants. My family’s immigrant. I married into a family of immigrants.”

Not all the conservative reaction to Rubio and the proposal is positive, however.

Commentator Mickey Kaus bashed the “Rubio bill” on Twitter because the “undocumented are legalized immediately! Not going to be kicked out if enforcement’s degraded.”

In an editorial headlined “The Rubio Con,” Kaus said he awaits “further details on this festival of legislative gimmickry, but on first glance it certainly looks like a cynical effort designed to allow Hispanicked Republicans to seem tough while voting for amnesty: Look at all those drones! Yes, the undocumented will be able to legally steal your job — but, hey, they won’t get to vote!”

Rubio’s office said the senator expects pushback from the right as well as the left. Liberal-leaning unions have fought against guest-worker programs such as the one the Gang of Eight proposed. The AFL-CIO, however, told The Washington Post that it supports this effort along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Liberal immigration advocates also want a faster pathway to citizenship.

The Gang of Eight senators includes Republicans Rubio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Arizona’s McCain and Jeff Flake. The Democrats: Schumer, Illinois’ Richard Durbin, Colorado’s Michael Bennett and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez. The fact that both of border-state Arizona’s Republican senators crafted the proposal could bolster the package’s credibility on Capitol Hill.

Obama is “delighted” with the Gang of Eight’s work, Schumer said. The president plans to speak Tuesday in Nevada about immigration, and told some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week that the issue is a top priority. Obama wants to make good on his promise to fix the immigration system.

However, Obama has chafed at the notion that his administration isn’t doing enough to secure the border. Deportations were up as are the number of border patrol agents under Obama, who is also continuing work on a barrier and fence that stretch for nearly 700 of the 2,000 miles of U.S.-Mexico border.

But Democrats agreed to more border security as Republicans agreed to a pathway to citizenship.

With bipartisan backing from so many high-profile senators, the proposal’s chances of passage look better than ever.

Even if it passes the Senate, the measure will have to go through the more-conservative House, where Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz Balart is working on a bipartisan bill in that chamber.

Rubio has close ties to Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Balart, who have bucked their own party over immigration and support the effort. So does Rubio’s Florida partner in the Senate, Democrat Bill Nelson. Miami Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat, said he welcomed Rubio’s “evolution” on the issue.”

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican vice-presidential candidate in the last election, said he, too, supported Rubio’s proposal.

Ryan and his running mate, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, barely earned a quarter of the Hispanic vote, which, in part, cost them the election. Romney’s statement that he favored “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants rubbed many Hispanics the wrong way.

Hispanics, however, began shifting away from the GOP years before as Republicans played a leading role in stopping an immigration reform plan in 2007 backed by McCain, former President Bush and former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, whose seat Rubio now holds.

McCain said immigration is a “preeminent issue” for Hispanic voters.

“The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens,” McCain said Monday.

Menendez on ABC’s This Week said the speedy timetable shouldn’t be too much of an impediment.

“First of all, Americans support it, in poll after poll. Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it,” Menendez said.

The proposal also dovetails with anti-sex trafficking proposals that Rubio backs. He says many sex trafficking victims and witnesses are here unlawfully and are therefore reluctant to cooperate with authorities for fear of deportation.

“It’s not a good idea to have millions of people permanently trapped in an immigration status that keeps them forever at a distance from our society,” Rubio said.

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