Rubio tries to thread immigration needle

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the son of Cuban immigrants, waits to make a statement at a news conference where he expressed his disappointment in President Barack Obama's initiative to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

AP Photo

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) writes in a new book that immigration reform should happen through piecemeal bills, not the kind of massive compromise legislation that he sponsored in the last Congress.

The potential 2016 presidential candidate nods to conservative critics of his big bill, which passed the Senate but never got a vote in the House. But he does not apologize or recant.

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He does advocate a new process for letting people who entered the country illegally stay, but it would not include a pathway to citizenship, something that was included in the Senate bill after negotiations with Democrats.

Rubio’s book, “American Dreams,” comes out next week, but POLITICO obtained an early copy of the chapter that addresses immigration.

The 43-year-old Rubio writes that it is “not nativism” for people to fear those in the country illegally could take the jobs of American citizens. But he criticizes activists on both sides who he believes are responsible for “stalemate” on the divisive issue.

“Some on the right know it needs to be done, but they want someone else to do it,” he writes. “Some on the left have concluded that having the issue is more politically valuable than solving the problem. Groups on both sides use it to raise money.”

The only mention of immigration in the book comes during the final pages of the second chapter. The rest of the book outlines Rubio’s domestic policy agenda, including on taxes and health care.

Immigration is the single biggest issue working against Rubio’s presidential hopes. He hoped that shepherding the bill into law in 2013 would give him a signature achievement to run on, but activists on the right mobilized to help block it. And polling showed an uptick in concern about illegal immigration.

As he weighs whether to run for president or reelection to the Senate, Rubio knows he will need to address the issue head on. The book tour, which starts next week, will offer a window into whether there is space for him in the crowded 2016 field.

Rubio presents himself as someone staking out a sensible middle ground.

“On the one hand, calls to grant amnesty to twelve million people are unrealistic and quite frankly irresponsible,” he writes. “On the other hand, not a single opponent of the Senate bill I helped author proposed that we try to round up and deport twelve million human beings.”

The senator criticizes President Barack Obama for executive action and argues the tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who entered the country last year shows how insecure the border is.

The senator calls the immigration status quo “chaotic” and says doing nothing hurts the middle class the most. He complains that star basketball players get to stay in the country but world-class scientists are forced to leave.

“Making our legal immigration system a merit-based system that encourages innovators will have broad benefits for our economy,” he writes, adding that it will “help immigrants assimilate more quickly.”

Rubio acknowledges widespread fear of “loopholes and unintended consequences.”

“We must begin by acknowledging, considering our recent experience with massive pieces of legislation, achieving comprehensive immigration reform of anything in a single bill is simply not realistic,” he writes. “Having tried that approach, I know this to be true firsthand.”

Rubio notes that the last immigration reform bill, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, legalized more than three million people, “but the enforcement measures were never fully implemented.”

“A significant percentage of Americans simply don’t trust either party in Washington to address other aspects of immigration reform before illegal immigration has been brought under control, and for good reason,” writes Rubio.

He argues that just enforcing the laws already on the books is not enough. He calls for more investment in electronic monitoring and personnel. He calls for a program that allows employers to more easily check if someone is legally in the country. And he wants more enforcement to prevent people from overstaying their visas.

“Building more fencing alone will not be enough to address illegal crossings,” he writes.

“Each year about one million people permanently immigrate here legally,” adds Rubio. “But when people here that we have over twelve million people here illegally, they feel as if we are being taken advantage of. They see how hard it is to find and keep a steady and well-paying job, and they worry that more people will mean more competition for already scarce work. That’s not nativism. That’s human nature.”

The first piecemeal bill he wants to pass would include better enforcement measures.

The second bill would be to make the legal immigration process more merit-based, transitioning from “family-based immigration” toward “work-and-skill-based immigration.” This would include a limited guest worker program for seasonal workers and allowing more high-tech visas.

The third bill would then address the 12 million people who entered the country unlawfully. Here, he offers a three-prong approach to dealing with the undocumented.

First, those in the country illegally would have to register. “If they have committed serious crimes or have not been here long enough, they will have to leave,” he writes.

Next, those who qualify would apply for “temporary non-immigrant visas.” These would require a fine, a background check and learning English. “To keep it, they will have to pay taxes,” he explains, and they could not collect government benefits.

Finally, those who receive the visas would have to wait at least a decade to apply for permanent residency.

“Of course,” he writes, “there will be detractors.”

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