Marco Rubio’s Immigration Dilemma




February 24, 2016, 4:00 AM

Can he persuade conservatives that his immigration bill is really a reform?

What would President Marco Rubio do about immigration? To attempt to answer this question, let us review the past, analyze the present, and prognosticate about the future.

The core framework of the Schumer–Rubio immigration bill (S-744) of 2013 was first developed in the failed Kennedy–McCain legislation of 2005. For example, on amnesty, Kennedy–McCain proposed an immediate “Z visa” for illegal immigrants, while Schumer–Rubio granted immediate “provisional” status. Although technically on “probation,” the illegal immigrants were essentially granted immediate amnesty under both bills (including work permits and Social Security cards) before any guarantee of border security was put in place.

Chris Crane, the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) union, told Breitbart News that Schumer–Rubio was actually “weaker” than current law.

There were over 1,000 waivers, which gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the power to bypass enforcement.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, which represents 12,000 federal employees, denounced Schumer–Rubio, declaring: “It was deliberately designed to undermine the integrity of our lawful immigration system.”

Further, the ICE Officers Council stated: “The 1,200-page substitute bill before the Senate will provide instant legalization and a path to citizenship to gang members and other dangerous criminal aliens.”

Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office declared that S-744 would not stop most illegal immigration. The CBO forecast that Schumer–Rubio would reduce illegal immigration by only one-third to one-half. And the bill would almost double legal (overwhelmingly low-skilled) immigration. This is a much larger increase than under Kennedy–McCain.

The primary role of Senator Rubio in the Gang of Eight was not in crafting the legislation but in selling the bill to conservatives.

The senators who wrote the legislation — the famous Gang of Eight — intended to expand the pool of cheap foreign labor for favored big businesses: Harry Reid for Las Vegas’s gambling business; Marco Rubio for Florida’s cruise-ship industry; Michael Bennet for Colorado’s ski industry. Apparently the Gang of Eight agreed that “ski instructor” is a job Americans are reluctant to perform, and thus more foreign workers are needed.

The primary role of Senator Rubio in the Gang of Eight was not in crafting the legislation but in selling the bill to conservatives.

For a time, Rubio’s salesmanship appeared to be working, and there was not much conservative opposition to S-744. But then the details of the Gang of Eight’s work began to be scrutinized, and Rubio faced pushback from the Right.

For example, on June 26, 2013, Senator Ted Cruz told radio host Mark Levin that because of S-744’s thousand waivers, the Obama administration could “ignore vast portions” of the bill. Cruz told Levin that the bill “weakens existing law and border security, it weakens the fence provisions, it weakens biometric control, it weakens operational control. . . . It puts legalization first, and it promises border security in the future.”

Indeed, on June 10, 2013, Rubio had told the Spanish-language Univision television network: “First comes the legalization. Then come the measures to secure the border.”

Rubio opposes a comprehensive approach and favors a step-by-step piecemeal advance of immigration legislation.

Later in the summer, Rubio shifted ground. He met with Chris Crane and with border sheriffs and promised to fix the bill. Nevertheless, when amendments were offered to strengthen enforcement, Rubio voted against the amendment introduced by John Thune (R., S.D.) to strengthen the border fence and the one introduced by David Vitter (R., La.) to strengthen the entry-exit system.

In the end, Rubio voted for the final passage of S-744. Chris Crane felt betrayed. “Senator Rubio,” he said, “who promised ICE officers and sheriffs that he would take steps to repair the bill’s provisions that gut interior enforcement, has abandoned that commitment.”

Today Rubio opposes a comprehensive approach and favors a step-by-step piecemeal advance of immigration legislation. But is this a matter of substance or process?

On April 19, 2015, Senator Rubio was interviewed by Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation. Schieffer asked Rubio directly: “Well, if you became president, would you sign the bill that you put together into law?”

Rubio responded, “Well, that’s a hypothetical that will never happen.”

Senator Rubio was also interviewed on Univision by Jorge Ramos. Rubio said he would not immediately end Obama’s first executive amnesty, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

Amy Sherman, a reporter for the Miami Herald, posed the question: “Has Rubio backtracked?” She concluded: “While Rubio has changed his opinion on how the legislation should be passed, we found that he hasn’t changed his views on the underlying policy issues.” Sherman quotes the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh, a strong advocate of the 2013 Senate bill: “Senator Rubio’s current position on handling the illegal immigrant population is very similar to his opinion in 2013. The only difference is that now Senator Rubio wants several piecemeal bills rather than one comprehensive bill — a stylistic rather than a substantive change.”

Current Immigration Legislation

Senator Rubio is now a member of the Gang of Six, the sponsors of the Immigration Innovation Act of 2015 (known as I-Squared), which would double the number of H-1B “guest worker” visas for low-wage foreign tech workers, give work permits to their spouses and some categories of foreign students, and increase permanent immigration.

Thus, despite Rubio’s constant rhetorical drumbeat about how border and interior enforcement must be dealt with before other immigration measures are considered, his first post–Gang of Eight legislative proposals is not related to enforcement but, instead, advocates more “guest workers” and expanding permanent immigration.

RELATED: Immigration Is a Deal-Breaker: No to Rubio 2016

The I-Squared bill is being promoted by the same group of big-business lobbyists and high-tech moguls who poured money into the 2013 bill. The tech industry claims there is a “shortage” of American IT workers.

But in a Senate hearing, leading academic experts have refuted this thesis. Professor Ron Hira of Howard University declared that “there is an ample supply of American workers . . . who are willing and qualified to fill high-skilled jobs in this country.” Hira continued, “Most of the H-1B program is now being used to import cheaper foreign guest workers, replacing American workers and undercutting their wages.”

In Orlando, Disney announced that it would fire hundreds of American tech workers and replace them with foreign guest workers through the H-1B program. These foreign workers were less experienced and less educated (but cheaper) than the Americans they were replacing.

It was also made clear that Disney expected the displaced Americans to train the H-1Bs or lose their severance packages. Rubio’s colleague, Florida Democratic senator Bill Nelson — like Rubio, a supporter of the H-1B program – was nonetheless concerned about possible abuses in the Disney layoffs and asked the DHS to investigate.

Nelson stated: “The program was created to help fill jobs when there are labor shortages, not to take jobs away from anyone.”

Compared with Senator Nelson’s spirited reaction to Disney’s firing and humiliation of American workers, Rubio’s response was muted and late in coming.

Further, unlike a leading Democrat in the Gang of Eight, Senator Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), Rubio has not joined a bipartisan group of ten senators led by Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) in calling on the Obama administration to investigate abuse of American workers in the H-1B system.

Major Donors

Journalist McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed investigated Rubio’s presidential fundraising activities. He reported that fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, a leading mass-immigration advocate, had been “personally assured” by Rubio that “he was still dedicated to the cause.” Puzder stated: “I actually have spoken with Senator Rubio on the issue, and he has not backed away from wanting immigration reform at all.”

Oracle founder Larry Ellison, a Silicon Valley mogul worth an estimated $54 billion, threw a fundraising event for candidate Rubio. Ellison was active, along with Mark Zuckerberg and others, in the tech alliance that promoted the Gang of Eight bill, and he is currently a big promoter of the Gang of Six’s I-Squared legislation.

Rubio’s Team

Rubio’s key advisers have long been affiliated with Republicans who favor greatly increasing legal immigration and taking a softer stance on amnesty/legalization for “undocumented” immigrants. His chief pollster, Whit Ayres, is the author of a book arguing that the GOP should “moderate” its positions on issues ranging from immigration to religious freedom/gay rights (for example, he praised Indiana’s backtracking on its religious-freedom law).

Rubio’s key advisers have long been affiliated with Republicans who favor greatly increasing legal immigration.

Cesar Conda — Rubio’s former chief of staff, and a longtime advocate of mass (low- and high-skilled) immigration — would be an influential figure in a Rubio White House. In the mid-1990s, Conda played a key role in opposition to the Barbara Jordan–inspired immigration-reform plan sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith (R., Tex.) and Senator Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.), which would have cut legal immigration and strengthened enforcement.

Enrique Gonzalez III, a friend of Rubio’s, was his general counsel and chief negotiator with the Democrats on the Gang of Eight. In an essay in The New Yorker chronicling the history of the 2013 bill, Ryan Lizza reported that he had talked to a “Rubio aide,” later clearly identified as Gonzalez, who told him: “There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it. There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.”

The Future

As the controversy over “sanctuary cities” demonstrates, immigration politics is fluid. It is entirely reasonable for a presidential candidate to alter his or her position in light of recent events. Let us pose two scenarios.

Scenario A: During the primary campaign Rubio embraces an “Americans first” approach that explicitly examines the effects of mass immigration on American citizens. The candidate adds some immigration hawks to his staff. He stops promoting I-Squared and clearly repudiates the substance of the 2013 bill.

In the spring of 2017, President Rubio, as promised in his campaign, vigorously undertakes border-security and interior enforcement. Later, with the support of a Republican Congress, he makes changes in legal immigration categories, shifting from extended-family to skills-based policies, and starts reducing overall immigration.

Finally, after the first two steps have been accomplished, some former illegal immigrants with long-time residence are granted legalization. The liberal-left is outraged, big business is annoyed, but the overwhelming majority of Americans support President Rubio’s policy.

Scenario B: During the campaign, Rubio emphasizes his unique leadership qualities for solving the immigration quandary. In the spring of 2017, President Rubio unveils his policy in a series of sequential pieces of legislation. Launching a charm offensive, he lobbies conservatives to give him some time to explain exactly how his proposals would work.

Conservatives heavily invested in a successful Rubio administration agree and mute their criticisms. After a period of time, however, it appears that Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh was right: Rubio’s new immigration stance is “a stylistic rather than a substantive change.” The core elements of Kennedy–McCain and Schumer–Rubio remain in the 2017 plan.

It becomes clear that “modernizing our legal-immigration system” — as the Gang of Eight promised to do — means greatly increasing permanent low-skilled immigration and increasing the number of low-wage IT guest workers, who will ultimately replace American tech workers through an expanded H-1B program.

The majority of House Republicans reluctantly oppose the White House plan. But at that point Speaker Paul Ryan solicits and receives Democratic support. Gradually, the various steps of the plan pass Congress.

A youthful Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D., Mass.) declares: “I only wish my great-uncle [Senator Ted Kennedy] could have lived to see this day.” A delighted New York Times editorial board praises the political skill of President Rubio.

The Times editors note that if the exact same legislation had been proposed by a Democrat or by a President Jeb Bush, conservative and Republican opposition would have been immediate, unstinting, and probably successful. “Fortunately,” the Times opined, “President Rubio was able to gain a honeymoon period, build momentum, and neutralize conservative opposition. He should be proud of this monumental achievement.”

All the available evidence (legislative history, donors, staff, media appearances, campaign statements) suggests that Scenario B is much more likely to come to pass than Scenario A.


— John Fonte is the author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others​?, the winner of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) book award for nonfiction in 2012. He is not affiliated with any presidential campaign.

— Pubished originally in National Review Online