There was Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on seven—that’s right, seven– different Sunday talk shows, making the case for immigration reform.
Rubio will join eight Senators of both parties to present the bill officially on Tuesday. It promises to be one of the year’s most politically charged debates, and Rubio was trying to get on the right side of it Sunday.
He summed up the positive case to Bob Schieffer on CBS News’ “Face the Nation”:
This bill does three things that are fundamentally important for our country. It modernizes our legal immigration system…It puts in place the toughest enforcement measures in the history of the United States, potentially in the world. And it once and for all deals with the issue of those that are here illegally, but does so in a way that is fair and compassionate but does not encourage people to come illegally in the future…
But he spent most of his time trying to persuade Tea Party Republicans– to whom he is a hero but who have been hostile to immigration reform–that the bill didn’t reward “undeserving” people who broke the rules.
Here’s what he said on ABC News’ This Week:
I think it’s important to understand it does not give anything…The only thing you are earning here is an opportunity to apply for temporary status, and ultimately, potentially to apply for a green card, the way everybody else does…
It will actually be cheaper if they went back home, waited ten years, and applied for a green card. And so, secondly, we’ve not awarding anything. All we’re giving people the opportunity to eventually do is gain access to the same legal immigration system, the same legal immigration process that will be available to everybody else.
And then they don’t qualify for any federal benefits. This is an important point. No federal benefits, no food stamps, no welfare, no Obamacare. They have to prove they’re gainfully employed. They have to be able to support themselves, so they’ll never become a public charge.
Finally there’s the issue of security, as he told Schieffer:
And of course, that will be dependent upon certain security measures being met. That means securing the border, universal e-verify, and a universal entry-exit tracking system. If those three things are not in place, that green card process won’t begin, even if the ten years has elapsed.
And then there’s the alternative, which included a not-so-subtle swipe at last year’s GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney:
The proposals in the past that some have advocated is to make their lives miserable so that they’ll leave on their own, or to basically ignore the problem…
Rubio is telling Republicans their current stance on immigration is untenable. But he’s doing it in the language of the GOP base, which holds his own presidential ambitions in their hands.
Rubio voted against the New Year’s “fiscal cliff” compromise. He will undoubtedly vote against expanded background checks or any restrictions on guns. On every issue but immigration, he’s likely to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tea Party.
But on the immigration issue, he needs to stake out new ground. He simply can’t pander to Republican nativism because that would kill his chances to reach out to Hispanics, and would contradict his own “brand” as an immigrant’s son who lived the American Dream.
So, he’s taking a big but calculated risk that he can bring his party’s base along—or at least neutralize them. This is the first test of his leadership abilities in the long run-up to 2016.