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What Conservative Principles Are Rubio’s Critics Defending?

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?

The answer from more reasonable opponents of immigration reform would probably be that they are defending the rule of law. They are profoundly offended by the idea that people who entered the country illegally would derive any benefit from crossing the border without permission. I have some sympathy for this point of view, as any country has a right and a duty to control its borders.

But while talking about defense of the rule of law is always a strong rhetorical platform, its application in the immigration debate is of limited usefulness. Saying that 11 million people shouldn’t have been able to enter the country illegally is fine, but it doesn’t give us much insight as to what to do with them now that they are here. Unless your position is that they must all be deported forthwith—a preposterous proposition that would require the employment of an enormous federal force whose existence would surely be contrary to the limited government views of these same conservatives—or a comical faith in “self deportation” (thank you, Mitt Romney), then what do these conservatives advocate other than building a wall that would run the length of the border between the United States and Mexico?

What Rubio and the other Republicans who have come to the sensible conclusion that these immigrants must be offered a path to legality have done is to face reality. Since these people—the overwhelming majority of whom came seeking work—are already here and aren’t going anywhere, it is obviously in the interests of the nation, as well as the federal exchequer, to get them into the system, paying more taxes and integrated into our national life, rather than operating in the shadows. Claiming that doing this violates the rule of law begs the question of whether maintaining the status quo or pretending that they can be deported is actually a defense of that principle. Dealing with the problem seems not only more reasonable but to be based in more respect for the law than the current situation.

Lowry and other conservatives who worry about whether this will be a repeat of the 1986 immigration bill, which promised better enforcement that was not delivered, have a point. But the idea that the measures about border security in the bill are nothing but airy promises is unfair. One can always argue that the government will treat the provisions in the bill as meaningless and that Congress will be too weak to insist on enforcement. But the stakes in this coalition are so high that a repeat of past failures in this manner seems less likely. Even the Democrats understand that the price of Republican support means real border security and this bill provides a template for that.

Opposition to immigration reform based on skepticism about Democratic trustworthiness may be understandable, but it does not strike me as a strong enough reason to stick with our current dysfunctional system. As Rubio has rightly said, the real amnesty plan is what we have now, for all intents and purposes. If conservatives are genuinely interested in addressing this problem then his idea is the best option they are ever likely to get.

Take away the rule-of-law argument and all you are left with is the sort of vague talk about the “end of America” you hear from some denizens of the fever swamps of the right as well as mutterings about Hispanics using amnesty to be on welfare or that the citizenship track is a plot to create more voters for the Democrats. Suffice it to say that this is an echo of 19th century Know Nothing-style immigrant bashing that has nothing to do with the cause of individual liberty or limited government that are the principles conservatives should be defending.

And that is exactly why Rubio and other leading Republicans need to step up and put an end to the idea that the conservative movement should be identified with such talk. Far from betraying conservatism, what Rubio and his colleagues are doing is an effort to solve a problem and strengthen our system of laws as well as free market principles. The debate on immigration should require the bill’s advocates to ensure that the border will be defended. But the idea that Rubio has been rolled or betrayed his party is pure bunk.

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