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Marco Rubio's amnesty-lite immigration plan vs. Obama's amnesty plan

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed a pragmatic amnesty-lite plan that would allow the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States to earn a pathway to legal residency (as opposed to a path to citizenship).

Rubio released some general points about his proposal Wednesday to the Wall Street Journal for a Saturday story -- a day after before Rubio spoke Thursday to the New York Times as it was reporting out a comprehensive immigration plan that President Obama plans to push. That Times story appeared Sunday.

Obama's plan would give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. And it would be one big bill. Rubio, who says illegal immigrants should pay a fine and have clean criminal records, has called for a more piecemeal approach, although he told the Times that it's not a "line in the sand." He's working on at least three or four bills. Note: Rubio is not opposed to people earning citizenship once they're on the pathway to legal residency.

"Under Rubio's approach, qualifying undocumented immigrants would be given visas to stay in the US," spokesman Alex Conant said. "Then, after a certain amount of time and after doing a bunch of other stuff (like paying back taxes, etc.), they could then earn ability to apply for permanent residence, just like any other legal immigrant. They would have to get to back of line, but permanent residence is first step towards naturalization."

Just how this would all work is unclear. There's no legislation. That's a reflection of Washington's culture, which rewards talk more than action. Rubio is a good talker. Relative to that, Rubio's record as a doer is more wanting (but then he's in the minority and has been in the Senate for two years).

Meantime, Rubio has garnered favorable, national attention for his proposals in the past without having to provide anything on paper. So there's little incentive for him to change now. Also, putting something on paper before you build consensus is a good way to lose on an issue.

In some ways, Rubio's latest proposal is a replay of his DREAM Act alternative for illegal immigrants who  raised in the United States who were brought here as kids. Rubio released no formal plan or bill there, either. The Obama Administration aped the measure via executive action. And then Rubio dropped the measure with little fanfare. He got the good press and no blowback. Welcome to DC. Conant said that Rubio plan was "tabled.... since it had no chance of passing after Obama's EO removed urgency and inflamed partisan politics"

The politics are more toxic for Rubio. Despite what Republicans will say, it's members of their party who have stopped immigration reform in 2006 and with the scuttling of the DREAM Act, which Rubio essentially voted against. Still, Democratic-leaning unions aren't big fans of immigration reform.

But things could be different now. More galling than amnesty: losing major elections. And Republicans, after seeing Hispanics flock to President Obama, have probably had enough of losing on this issue.

Alex Leary at The Buzz made this hand-dandy bullet list of Rubio's plan culled from the journal story:

  • Any overhaul, he says, needs to "modernize" legal immigration. America caps the number of visas for skilled workers and favors the relatives of people already here. "I'm a big believer in family-based immigration," he says. "But I don't think that in the 21st century we can continue to have an immigration system where only 6.5% of people who come here, come here based on labor and skill. We have to move toward merit and skill-based immigration."
  • He says the U.S. can either change the ratio of preferences for family-based immigration or raise the hard cap on people who bring investment or skills into the country. He prefers the latter, noting that the U.S. doesn't produce enough science, math and engineering graduates to fill the open posts in high-tech. He says this number can be adjusted to demand: "I don't think there's a lot of concern in this country that we'll somehow get overrun by Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs."
  • At the other end of the skill and wage scale, most of the 1.6 million agricultural laborers in America are Hispanics, the bulk of them illegal immigrants. American produce couldn't be picked without them. The number and type of visas provided through a guest-worker program would have to be sufficient to address this pressing need. From Georgia to Washington state in recent seasons, unpicked fruits and vegetables have rotted in the fields. He'd look to increase the number of visas for permanent or seasonal farm workers. "The goal is to give American agriculture a reliable work force and to give protection to these workers as well," Mr. Rubio says. "When someone is [undocumented] they're vulnerable to being exploited."
  • Initially, the illegal migrants now in the U.S. would mostly "avail themselves" of the guest-worker system, says Mr. Rubio. "Just the process to come here to legally work in agriculture is very difficult and very expensive. It doesn't work well. So that alone encourages illegal immigration."
  • Politically hardest is the question of the up to 12 million illegals currently here. Mr. Rubio's proposal allows for adults who overstayed their visa or sneaked in to come into the open."Here's how I envision it," he says. "They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check." Anyone who committed a serious crime would be deported. "They would be fingerprinted," he continues. "They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they've been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country." The special regime he envisions is a form of temporary limbo. "Assuming they haven't violated any of the conditions of that status," he says, the newly legalized person could apply for permanent residency, possibly leading to citizenship, after some years—but Mr. Rubio doesn't specify how many years. He says he would also want to ensure that enforcement has improved before opening that gate. The waiting time for a green card "would have to be long enough to ensure that it's not easier to do it this way than it would be the legal way," he says. "But it can't be indefinite either. I mean it can't be unrealistic, because then you're not really accomplishing anything. It's not good for our country to have people trapped in this status forever. It's been a disaster for Europe."
  • Mr. Rubio repeatedly says his plan "is not blanket amnesty or a special pathway to citizenship." The illegals wouldn't jump any lines, "they'd get behind everybody who came before them." No one would be asked to leave the country to qualify, but the requirements he sets out merely to get a working permit are "significant." "In an ideal world we wouldn't have eight, 10 million people who are undocumented," he says. "We have to address this reality. But we have to do it in a way that's responsible."
  • Mr. Rubio makes an exception for the over one million younger illegals. Along the lines of the Dream Act that stalled in Congress last year, he says people who came here unlawfully with their parents should be accommodated "in a more expedited manner than the rest of the population" to gain a way to naturalize.