A few weeks ago, Daniela Pelaez visited Washington. A valedictorian at North Miami Senior High, the 18-year-old had just learned she no longer faced deportation, thanks in part to congressional intervention in her immigration case.
She visited the nation’s capital the same week a Fox News Latino poll found Hispanic voters favor President Barack Obama six-to-one over any of the Republican presidential hopefuls. Suddenly, there was new life in the DREAM Act, an immigration bill that offers a path toward citizenship for young people like Daniela who came to the U.S. illegally with their parents.
Enter Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has cautioned his party on its stance on immigration, even as he’s considered one of the few Republicans who, with the No. 2 spot on the presidential ticket, could help draw Hispanics to the GOP.
Rubio now is floating a Republican version of the DREAM Act. It’s still just a concept, but with the backing of the leading Hispanic Republican, it’s seen as a way for the GOP to appeal to Latino voters turned off by the party’s harsh rhetoric on immigration. Democrats have already panned it, and a New York Times editorial called it “the DREAM Act without the dream.”
Rubio’s proposal allows young people who came to the United States with their parents to have access to a non-immigrant visa that allows them to study, and after their studies are complete, allows them to work legally in the United States. Eventually, Rubio said, they gain the same status of other non-immigrant visa-holders and are eligible to apply for residency. Three to five years after they obtain a green card, they’re eligible for citizenship.
“It’s a non-immigrant visa, so it doesn’t put them on a path in and of itself to residency and then citizenship,” he said. “But it does legalize their status, it wipes out any of these immigration penalties that they might be facing, and it allows them to go on with their lives with some level of certainty.”
We asked Rubio to discuss his idea. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
One of the criticisms out there seems to be that there’s sort of a category of second-class citizenship you’re creating here.
“There’s nothing second class about it. Right now they’re second class because they don’t have access to any legalization format. Their status quo is a second-class process. They’re illegally in this country and can’t move forward with their lives.
“They do not have a special pathway to citizenship —- they would have to do it the regular way, just like anybody else would. But they’re not prohibited from accessing the citizenship process. And the good news for them is that they get to wait in line while living in the U.S. legally. They don’t have to leave the country to do it.”
So they could go to school or into the military?
“Or start working when they graduate from school while they’re waiting in line for their green card. And it may take awhile. But that’s not a function of this bill, that’s a function of this broken immigration system, which I’ve long said needs to be modernized.”
How much of a role did meeting Daniela Pelaez and her sister have in shaping your thinking?
“Daniela’s case is a good example. It’s her and it’s also her sister, and they have very different stories. While she’s valedictorian of her high school, her sister is 26 and she’s not in school. So the DREAM Act may not help her sister. We want to be able to accommodate both dynamics, and to do that you’ve got to draft it in a way that gives them both the opportunity.
“As far as meeting her, I think it was an excellent catalyst for what we’re facing here. When you present her case to people, everyone would say ’yeah, that doesn’t make sense.’ So I think her case has been the perfect catalyst for renewing this debate.
“The biggest obstacle we’re going to face in this debate is not going to be the policy, I think it’s going to be the politics. I think it’s largely going to be the people primarily on the left who are terrified of losing the immigration issue — or at least a part of the immigration issue — as a political weapon. They had planned to run this election cycle beating up on Republicans for not caring about these kids. And now the prospect that there’s actually a reasonable proposal out there for solving this problem just frightens them because they don’t want to lose this as a political weapon.”
Who are you working with on this? Any Democrats?
“Although I know there are Democrats working on it, I’ve really largely wanted to get our own ducks in a row internally, because I need to understand this bill from A to Z and not have any unanswered questions before I go out and work on it. I know that I have other Senate Republican colleagues who are working on their own language as well. I’ve had great conversations in the past with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who I think is generally interested in dealing with this issue. I know he’s got his own bill and his own version of it, but we’ve had brief discussions about it.
“We’ve talked to advocates, we’ve talked to a lot of people who are living it. We’ve talked to people on both sides of the immigration debate in getting their input, because my intention is not to offer a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We’re always open on ideas to improve it, or make it better.
“We’re deeply committed to hopefully addressing this issue in a bipartisan fashion. I think there are so many issues that Republicans and Democrats are still going to be able to fight over if that’s what they want to do. But I think the notion of helping out these kids in these circumstances is something that really should unite us on a bipartisan basis.”
For you personally, as the son of parents who immigrated here, do feel that you more than some other folks in the Senate have a moral obligation to do something about immigration and the stalemate?
“I think all of us represent the issues of our nation. I don’t know if a have a larger moral obligation. They way I would characterize it is I have more real life experience. All of us bring the cumulative experience of our life to where we are, including the political process. You don’t just elect a person, you elect all they’ve seen and experienced in their lives, and how that impacts their decision making.
“So I think any senator from Florida, representing this state, having the kind of issues we have here, would be impacted by the human reality of the situation these kids are living. How can you live where I live, in West Miami, , in the middle of a majority-minority Hispanic community, and not know people that have been impacted by the current state of immigration policy in America? So certainly that has an impact on who I am and where I come from.”.
This is only a drop in the bucket. There’s an estimated 10 to 12 million undocumented people in the country. What do you do about that?
“One thing at a time here. I guess that’s the big challenge. After we take care of the kids issue, I think the next step is going to have to be an improvement in our enforcement mechanism. And at the same time, modernization of our legal immigration system. Guest worker program, etc.
“The pushback you’re going to get is that the wait in line takes a long time. That’s not a function of this bill. That’s a function of a legal immigration process that’s broken. It’s backlogged for a lot of different reasons, one of them is that we don’t have a guest worker program. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to work here permanently. They just want to work here four months, five months out of the year and then go back home. With the kind of advances we have in technology today, there’s no reason we can’t make that process more efficient.”
Do you feel that this has become so partisan and such a part of the election year politics that it’s impossible to get anything done this year?
“When we weren’t talking about a plan, people were criticizing me for not having one. And now that we have a plan, people are criticizing that we’re doing it in an election year. I don’t think you can go to someone like Daniela and say, ‘hey we understand your plight, but you’re going to have to wait until after this election.’
“My hope, maybe it’s naive, is that we can look and say ‘when it comes to this specific group of kids who are so sympathetic, let’s put aside our partisan politics and deal with this issue.’ At least when it comes to these kids, let’s try to get this thing worked out as soon as possible."