Marco Rubio’s immigration proposal is largely good policy, but in the political climate of the Republican primary, Rubio has abandoned key components of what would be a highly successful plan.
Despite Senator Marco Rubio’s wavering on the issue of immigration, his plan continues to closely match the Gang of Eight legislation proposed by him and seven other Senators in 2013, which would substantially improve our immigration system, economy, and national security. However, as a result of his political trepidation, Rubio’s plan abandons two key components of the Gang of Eight bill: the comprehensive approach and pathway to citizenship. As a Cuban-American politician on the political right, Rubio has a complicated history on the issue of immigration, a history that has both contributed to his rise to prominence and threatened his political career.
As a member of the Gang of Eight, a group of four Republicans and four Democrats who crafted a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, Rubio was largely responsible for selling the bill to skeptical conservatives who sought aggressive border security and largely opposed a pathway to citizenship. The bill, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act would have secured the border with fencing, surveillance systems, unmanned aerial systems, and mandated E-Verify among all employers. Additionally, it would have expanded high-skilled worker visas and created a guest worker program for low-skilled labor. Lastly, it would have offered a 13-year path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, during which time the applicants would undergo a background check, pay a fine, be restricted from federal benefits, and learn English and American history. The bill ultimately died in the House and provoked strong reaction from the political right who felt betrayed by the young Senator who was elected on a Tea Party platform. Rubio, as one of its main authors, has to some extent distanced himself from the bill.
The plan Rubio has offered during his presidential campaign is similar, but there are important differences. First, Rubio advocates for a piecemeal approach to the legislation, abandoning the kind of comprehensive approach he took in the Senate. The difference between one comprehensive bill and three piecemeal bills may not seem great, but the latter approach leaves many questions unanswered. As Francis Wilkinson points out in an editorial this month, passing E-Verify legislation without addressing the issue of the 11 million immigrants here would leave 8 million people without work during the indefinite period in which Congress would be debating the final bill. The labor shortage would also negatively impact the economy. In an address given in the summer of 2013, Rubio argued that the issue needed to be confronted in one bill. He himself pointed out, “As the enforcement measures kick in, we will have millions of people living here illegally who will be unable to work and provide for themselves and their families.” For political reasons or not, Rubio seems to have discarded this notion.
Rubio has also distanced himself from the path to citizenship proposed in the original bill. On the campaign trail, he is only willing to go so far as to advocate against mass deportation and for some sort of legal status for the 11 million. This shift is likely due to the climate in the Republican primary, in which the current front-runner has advocated for mass deportation. At the same time, Rubio may be acting in the interest of proposing a bill with a legitimate chance of passing Congress. A path to citizenship, what many on the right have derogatorily called “amnesty,” will continue to be a highly-charged subject. An immigration bill with a pathway to citizenship would be difficult to pass, and Rubio certainly understands this. The same could be said about the comprehensive approach discussed above.
What remains of the Gang of Eight’s bill in Rubio’s current proposal is very good policy. The first major component of the bill, border security, is something that Democrats and Republicans alike agree on—a fluid border negatively impacts the labor market, is a strain on government programs, and is a detriment to national security. Our current visa system is heavily based on familial connections. Moving towards a skill-based system will bring the educated and skilled workers that America’s economy needs to grow. Despite concerns over the effects of immigration reform on the American worker, the economic growth produced by the bill, estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to be as high as 5.4% in the long term, will sustain employment for immigrant and American workers alike. CBO estimates also foresaw the decline of wages for a period of ten years. The wage competition allowed by this bill is more a byproduct of the competitive world economy than it is a matter of policy. Unless we want to further hinder our ability to compete globally, this is not reason enough to restrict the influx of worker our growing economy needs.
Marco Rubio has stood by the assertion that mass deportation is both unethical and impractical, and his plan altogether would successfully fix our immigration system, close our southern border, and provide for sustained economic growth. However, Rubio need not forget his own advice from 2013 in both understanding the inefficacy of the piecemeal approach for which he is currently advocating and the deleterious cultural implications of denying citizenship to 11 million residents of the United States.