Rubio Finds Support on the Right for Immigration Plan

Rubio Finds Support on the Right for Immigration Plan

By Scott Conroy - January 22, 2013

With leaders from both parties calling on Congress to take up immigration reform this year, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been meeting with news outlets and conservative opinion-shapers to lay out his vision for a plan that would offer temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants. Those applying would have to pass background checks and other tests designed to eventually lead from permanent residency to citizenship.

Though he has not yet introduced legislation, in trumpeting his sweeping proposals Rubio has seized a torch that in recent years burned several similarly ambitious Republican politicians. But in a sign of how quickly the parameters of the debate on this issue have shifted since President Obama’s re-election, prominent conservatives -- many of whom were vocal in their opposition to previous similar plans -- have been lavishing praise on Rubio’s ideas for reform.

On his nationally syndicated radio show, Sean Hannity said that Rubio’s plan was “probably the most thoughtful bill that I have heard heretofore,” while Fox News colleague Bill O’Reilly called the program “a good one.” Other purveyors of conservative thought, from Grover Norquist to Ralph Reed to David Brody, have also weighed in with positive reactions.

The most important seal of approval thus far may have come from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who had until recently been tied to 2012 running mate Mitt Romney’s policy of opposing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants (whom Romney had suggested could be encouraged to “self-deport”).

But Ryan has made clear that he, too, is ready to pivot on the issue.

"Senator Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system," Ryan wrote last week in a post on his Facebook page. "I support the principles he’s outlined: modernization of our immigration laws; stronger security to curb illegal immigration; and respect for the rule of law in addressing the complex challenge of the undocumented population. Our future depends on an immigration system that works."

Rubio spent much of the first half of last year trying to drum up support for his plan to offer visas to the children of illegal immigrants who have served in the military or attended college -- an alternative to the Democratic-backed DREAM Act. But when the president issued an executive order that achieved similar ends, Rubio criticized him for having sidestepped Congress.

Since Obama’s re-election, which came with the support of more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters, Rubio’s team has been heartened by the stark sea change they have seen on the issue.

“Overall, the reaction’s been really positive, and there really hasn’t been any significant opposition to it,” Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant said of the senator’s plan. “People have made good points about the proposals, and we welcome a healthy debate. This isn’t something [where] the senator just woke up one morning and decided to do. He’s been thinking about these issues for years now.”

Rubio’s goal is to pass immigration legislation this year, and the political implications for the rising GOP star could be long-lasting. The first-term senator is widely expected to run for president in 2016. If he does, his first political hurdle to overcome would likely be in Iowa, where conservative hardliners on illegal immigration have long held sway.

In the 2008 nominating fight, John McCain’s efforts to promote comprehensive immigration reform were perhaps his greatest challenge in Iowa -- where he finished a distant fourth in that year’s caucuses. He was able to recover and win the Republican nomination, but immigration became an unshakeable albatross for a more recent GOP White House hopeful.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested in a primary debate that people who disagreed with a Texas law offering in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart,” the resulting criticism from conservatives grew into a firestorm in the Hawkeye State. Perry’s opponents and right-leaning activists hammered him for the comment, which he was forced to spend precious time on the stump trying to explain away.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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