Rubio and seven other senators, ranging from Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham to Democrats like Chuck Schumer, unveiled a controversial framework Sunday for overhauling the immigration system. It would increase border security, employment verification, and enforcement, but it would also provide a way for current illegal immigrants to become citizens.
That’s what’s caught a lot of attention.
But a framework is a long way from a bill, and eight Senators is a long way from 51 Senators, and passing the Senate is a long way from passing the Republican-controlled House. For that last task, the key may be Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador.
Newly installed on the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary committee, he’s been a regular guest on talk shows about the issue. Labrador, a former immigration attorney, has been portrayed, by former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and others, as a key force in both forming policy around immigration and in convincing fellow conservative Republicans to hop on board.
Labrador says that he’s spoken with Rubio.
The big question is whether they agree on policy. Rubio’s explicitly called for a “path to citizenship.” Liberals hear that and worry it might be citizenship in name only, while some conservative bloggers worry Rubio may be offering “amnesty.”
Rubio has been making the rounds on AM talk radio, wooing skeptical hosts like Rush Limbaugh to his way of thinking.
But convincing Labrador may be even more tricky. Idaho is much more conservative than Florida. A letter to the editor of the Coeur d’Alene Press today laments, “Did Idaho elect Raul Labrador to the US House of Representatives to broker a deal for amnesty that Barack Obama will accept?… No amnesty deal, Raul. Represent Americans!”
Labrador’s on record pushing for guest worker programs, believing that the current immigration system is broken. But he has repeatedly said he’s opposed to a path to citizenship. In 2011 he told Politico, “We can’t just give people a pathway. That’s just out of question.” His language against amnesty has been even stronger. In a statement published in 2010 on his campaign site, he said, “Let me make it clear — I do not support amnesty for illegals. Let me say it again: no amnesty … not now, not ever. Those here illegally must return to their home countries and apply to re-enter per the laws of the United States of America.”
I asked Labrador’s spokesman to send over the representative’s thoughts on the Senate framework. Labrador appears open, but skeptical. Here’s his statement.
“The Senate’s framework for comprehensive immigration reform is a much-needed step in the right direction. Both parties in both the House and the Senate have recognized that our immigration system is broken and I applaud the bipartisan efforts of these senators in creating this framework.
But the devil, as always, is in the details. I have always said that a special pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants is inconsistent with our shared belief in respect for the law. We cannot expect others to truly respect our laws if we do not have a consistent set of principles, so I will evaluate the proposed “tough but fair” provision regarding citizenship. Rewarding those who have knowingly broken our laws is unfair to the millions of people who have patiently obeyed our laws and worked within the system.
Any immigration reform must be fair to those immigrants who have come here legally, fair to those who are caught up in a broken system and fair to the American people who expect the rule of law to be followed. I look forward to continuing my own work on immigration reform with my House colleagues in both parties.”
But if Rubio interprets “path to citizenship” too strictly, he could gain Labrador’s support but lose support from the Democratic side. Watch closely to see if Labrador —famously willing to stand against party leadership — budges, Rubio does, or the whole thing comes apart.
As the Senate and House continue to debate the issue, make sure to check out our Feb. 7 cover story by Joe O’Sullivan, which will take a look at the personal side of immigration.