Commentary: Marco Rubio and the Dream Act

The Miami HeraldApril 27, 2012 

Marco Rubio has cut the Dream Act baby in half, but unlike Solomon’s biblical baby, this 21st century version can survive, maybe even morph into an American citizen.

That would mean a compromise. Not likely during this presidential election year, we know, but the political calculations now playing out in both parties also carry negative consequences for Democrats if they insist on holding hostage young, talented immigrants for the sake of scoring points on a political wedge issue.

Republicans don’t want to offend their Tea Party “close the immigration door” diehards and Democrats don’t want to hand a compromise win to Rubio and the GOP before the White House race is settled in November. The Dream Act is quite the perfect wedge issue — about two-thirds of Americans support it but the GOP “deport first” fringe won’t budge, and Democrats have gotten used to it that way.

The Dreamers have the purest of American arguments: Why punish them, brought to this country to live when they were children, for their parents’ choices? The Dreamers had no voice and now have no way out, in legal limbo and at risk of deportation, as the case of Daniela Peláez, a South Florida high school valedictorian and her sister, highlighted to Rubio in flesh and blood. The bright young woman wants to be a brain surgeon — she has earned the dream and would be an ideal American yet this country was about to deport her even though she did absolutely nothing to earn such treatment.

So Rubio has come up with a practical, if unfinished, stopgap to help young people like Daniela. Under Rubio’s still-developing plan, Dreamers would not be “rewarded” with citizenship, but at least they could stay indefinitely with a special immigration permit.

Take a bow, senator, you managed to offend the extremes on both sides of the immigration debate. That means that for most of America you’re on to something worth exploring.

Sure, there’s the political advantage angle, how to help your Republican Party soften its image with Hispanics after three years of Republicans going loco from Arizona to Florida to demonize Latinos with “show me your papers” laws and other disrespect. As a “veep” contender (Rubio’s protestations notwithstanding), it would certainly serve Mitt Romney to have a middle ground on immigration, with or without Marco on the ticket. We’re talking about one million-plus immigrant young people (about one-tenth of the nation’s undocumented population) without status who arrived here as children. The Dream Act that former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart worked long and hard to get passed for a decade offered a path toward citizenship.

Rubio has been straddling the Dreamer fence since he was elected in 2010, with teetering tea cup in hand. In a February column, I wrote that Rubio was good about talking pretty during the GOP presidential debates, pressing Mitt et al to set the right “tone” with Hispanics in debating immigration, but where was his own leadership in Congress on this issue?

“Is not just tone, dude, it’s substance,” I wrote. “If the Dream Act, which passed the House last year but tanked in the Senate (it received a majority 55 votes but a filibuster required 60 votes to pass), wasn’t good enough for Rubio, then what would he propose?”

He finally delivered.

Rubio’s still-being-crafted version of the Dream Act would also open the door to hardworking, bright young immigrants so they can attend college, enroll in the military and work legally in the U.S.A. — but no citizenship. Not quite the Solomonesque choice that Rubio’s critics are making it out to be. Some Democrats in Congress have already planted the “all or nothing” flag — unless citizenship is part of the Dream Act equation, forget about it.

Wiser voices, especially immigration advocates guided more by the humanity of this position than the dictates of Democratic Party talking points, welcome Rubio’s version as a small opening of the immigration door that the senator’s Tea Party supporters are eager to shut permanently — and pronto.

And wiser still voices, including South Florida immigration attorney Cheryl Little, raise a more direct challenge to President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. It already has the discretionary authority to allow temporary legal status to Dreamers. Rubio’s “solution” doesn’t need Congress to pass a law.

Solomon would be proud.

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