After nearly five months of backroom talks, lawmakers crafting immigration reform bills in the House and Senate say they’ll release legislation next week. But as veteran immigration reformers like Sens. Chuck Schumer and Lindsay Graham danced their familiar routines on the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, the new kid on the scene, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tried to come off as a cooling agent. In a letter to Senate Juditiary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Rubio warned against the “rush to legislate.”
“Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature,” Rubio wrote.
Some have commented that Rubio is trying to build himself an exit strategy from the immigration reform process, to which he’s been integral thus far. That could be. While there’s little doubt the Florida Republican is committed to reforming immigration laws, skeptics say he’s even more committed to taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania come 2016. And to the extent he thinks the reform process will hinder that ambition by angering the right of the party, Rubio may be ready to bail.
Another possibility is that Rubio is just trying to position himself as the gatekeeper and as a leader, and he’s pressing the breaks any time it appears to the public that someone else is pressing the gas.
Rubio’s objections to the speed of the process don’t have a great deal of substance. He’s mainly said that he wants the bill to go through the normal committee process and in his letter on Sunday, he called for a series of hearings to discuss the bill. The truth is that was already the plan—leading members of the Senate have committed to starting the reform bill in the Judiciary Committee and moving it deliberatively to the floor.
Possibly because the plans outlined by the Gang of Eight, of which Rubio is a part, are already pretty conservative (like long waits to apply for a green card and additional investment in border security), he’s left with little room to move to the right and not much more than the process to raise alarms about.
We saw him act similarly not so long ago when he called the White House’s leaked immigration reform proposal “dead on arrival.” Truth is, on the substance, the White House bill didn’t look so different from his own plan.
As I’ve noted before, Marco Rubio is walking a fine line: attempting to galvanize Latino support for the GOP while also maintaining his conservative credentials to keep a fractured party unified. And he’s intent on doing this while looking like he’s holding the reins.
Rubio aside, we’ve known for weeks that the Senate’s bi-partisan Gang of Eight would release a bill after Congress returned from Easter break. And it’s not a great surprise that the secretive cohort of House members plan to do the same. We know less about the House bill’s content or how it will proceed, but reports from Politico suggest it’s similar to what the Senate has proposed, with some additionally punitive provisions, like a requirement that undocumented immigrants admit they broke the law.
On the substance of the promised Senate bill, the big news to start the week was an agreement between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce on a guest worker program. The new visa category would provide an avenue for tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, of new immigrants to work in industries that need labor and then petition to stay in the U.S. permanently at some later date. Importantly, the agreement would also allow these workers to leave the job they come for and get another job, which allays some concerns that the program will tie legal status to the whims of an employer. Pay for these workers would be set at industry prevailing wages, a demand labor made to ensure guest workers don’t undercut wages more broadly.
There are still mighty questions about what the Senate and House bills will include. We don’t know what sort of bars they’ll impose on applicants, for example, or how they’ll work in enforcement provisions. What’s clear is the rubber is hitting the road, whether Rubio likes it or not.