It was probably inevitable. Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s decision to join a bipartisan coalition trying to forge a compromise immigration reform proposal was bound to bring down on him the wrath of some conservatives. In some precincts of the right, opposition to any effort to deal with the reality of illegal immigration other than by fantasies of mass deportation has always tended to be put down as an “amnesty” plan. So it is hardly surprising that Rubio’s rollout of the bipartisan reform proposal that was crafted by the “gang” of four Democrats and four Republicans is generating considerable flack this week.
One example came from National Review editor Rich Lowry, whose Politico column takes the point of view that Rubio has been rolled by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. According to the thoughtful Lowry, Rubio was no match for the wily Schumer, who got the Florida Republican to buy into a lopsided deal that provided no real guarantees about border enforcement in exchange for a path to citizenship for the illegals. I think this underestimates Rubio as well as being a misreading of the bill. But the question running through my head as I read this and other ripostes to the push for the reform proposal isn’t so much about whether Rubio is as foolish as his detractors believe him to be or the argument about the details of the bill. My question is more basic: What conservative principle are Rubio’s critics defending here?
Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.
While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.