Is Rubio Trapped on Immigration Reform?

He’s stuck between Republicans who want to water down the immigration bill and Democrats who don’t. Can he find a way out? Michael Tomasky doesn’t like the odds.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Finally, committee action is set to start today in the Senate on the immigration bill. The dead-enders on the right are gearing up. Utah’s Mike Lee, for example, is evidently introducing amendments that say in essence, “strike everything after the words ‘an act.’” Less extreme colleagues are still trying to push the bill rightward in various ways. This puts Marco Rubio in a spot. He needs to placate these forces if he’s going to have a shot at the GOP nomination in 2016. But somewhere on that continuum, there’s a tipping point, at which he loses the trust of the Democrats he has spent months negotiating with, and the bill itself perhaps loses some Democratic support. The sweet spot is awfully small, and if he doesn’t find it, his 2016 hopes, and maybe even the bill, are in agua caliente.

Here’s the situation. What the conservatives are hopping mad about—aside of course from the general idea that they have to do this in the first place, which in many ways is the inescapable problem—is something called the RPI provision. That’s “registered provisional immigrant” status. In the current language, if an undocumented immigrant was in the United States on December 31, 2011, that person can come forward and get a work authorization and permission to travel. Then they start the 10- or 13-year process of becoming a citizen.

But this is all contingent, to some extent, on the border being secure. In the first year of the law’s life, the secretary of Homeland Security has to put forward a plan to achieve 90 percent control of the border. Once the plan is submitted, processing of the people applying for RPI status can begin.

Well, you can see where this is going already, I’m sure. Conservatives don’t think much of all this. We’re going to let these hordes start applying for citizenship on the basis of a plan—a mere promise, made by a bunch of people (Democratic bureaucrats at Homeland Security) who we think don’t care about securing the border in the first place? And so efforts will be made to tighten that language up a bit. Delaying the beginning of the RPI process is the obvious thing, but there will also be Republican efforts to make the application process stricter, thereby weeding some potential applicants out—making people submit a DNA sample, perhaps; imposing bans on travel to the home country; and so on.

So here is the precise rock and hard place between which Rubio is stuck. In months of painstaking negotiations with the gang of eight, he agreed to the existing language. But now that he sees the pushback from the right (“Rubio’s Folly” and all that), he is certain—as, indeed, he has already signaled in various comments—that the Senate can “improve” the bill. This almost surely means tinkering with the beginning of the RPI process.

But too much of that will certainly mean some Democrats will turn against the bill. A Senate source suggests to me that it could be a big-enough number to be decisive to the bill’s chances. The RPI process, another person watching all this closely told me yesterday, is the key to the whole thing. It will make the term “illegal,” now a contested little piece of rhetorical real estate, superfluous (at least as it pertains to everyone here before the above-noted date). It will bring those people into civic life—and make them taxpayers, by the way—and as such is pretty much the central point of this entire exercise.

Yesterday, Rubio’s office leaked to Roll Call a list of changes to that process he’d like to see. There are five of them. They all seem fairly secondary to me, but you can be pretty certain that if the Democrats are basically OK with them, the Republicans probably won’t be, and vice versa.

Rubio has taken some risks here, and in some ways he’s to be admired for that. Getting that reactionary party to do something remotely beneficial for the country and world isn’t easy. It’s also true that just as Obama is no Green Lantern and can’t browbeat or charm or cajole Republicans into following his leadership, Rubio can’t do it either. He can try to persuade his fellow senators to follow him and appeal to their party’s collective self-interest. But the party’s collective self-interest isn’t the same thing as their individual self-interests. Most of them—in the Senate, and especially in the House—have no itching desire to see a bunch of new Latino voters in the polling places of their states and districts. If each of them needs to choose between some other guy from their party winning the presidency and them individually winning reelection, which do you think most of them will choose?

And this remains the fundamental fact. On an individual basis, most Republican legislators don’t want or need these 11 million new citizens. And they don’t care whether Marco Rubio’s career is advanced. And, of course, they don’t want to hand Barack Obama a victory. And, as they’ve shown, they have no particular interest in legislating. Aside from that, the hurdles are few.