Rubio’s Risky Immigration Plan

Sen. Marco Rubio is rolling out an immigration reform plan to compete with the DREAM Act, though his proposal won’t offer children of illegal immigrants full citizenship. Instead, there will be a path to permanent status, starting with non-immigrant visas. This adds an interesting dynamic to the veepstakes, since Romney staked out such a tough anti-illegal immigration position during the primary. And anti-illegal immigration activists are already denouncing the proposal:

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Rubio’s plan amounts to a “two-step process of amnesty.”

Romney has a difficult needle to thread here. First, he’s leading Obama in the polls on immigration policy based on his positions during the primary, and he could end up losing support if he backs Rubio’s plan. But Romney also needs to increase his support among Hispanic voters, a crucial demographic next November.

The idea that the Hispanic community votes mainly on the basis of immigration issues is nonsense, but Romney does carry the risk of alienating these voters if he’s seen as too extreme on the issue. Democrats will certainly use the opportunity to play identity politics and try to paint Romney as a xenophobe, and networks like Ultravision will help push the narrative along. So Romney needs to somehow smooth out his hard-line illegal immigration stance, while dodging the inevitable etch-a-sketch allegations that would greet even the slightest shift. A plan like Rubio’s, which focuses on the less controversial issue of illegal immigrant children and doesn’t go as far as the DREAM Act, may be a potential compromise.

Then again, it’s hard to predict how Rubio’s plan will be received. This sort of compromise is intended to satisfy moderates on both sides, but there’s always the risk that it will do just the opposite. The worst case is that Romney supports the plan, and it ends up being attacked vigorously and losing him support on both sides.