Politics & Policy

My Immigration Firestorm

An American Son, by Marco Rubio (Sentinel Penguin)
Campaigning from behind.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from  An American Son.

It had been quite a ride already. I had gone from a sure loser without a viable way to quit the race to the surging frontrunner. Now the stars had aligned again for Crist. The bickering Florida legislature and an unpopular bill had given him the opportunity to wear the mantle of a post-partisan populist. He made the most of his opportunity and reclaimed the lead in the race for the U.S. Senate. A Rasmussen poll released on May 4 confirmed he had retaken a lead, though by a smaller margin than Crist’s pollster had given him. Making matters worse, a new issue loomed that gave him the perfect platform from which to take command of the race.

The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon had resulted in an uncontainable oil gusher that was pouring fifty-three thousand gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening Florida’s coastline. Predictably, support among Floridians for offshore drilling dropped dramatically. I was asked by a reporter on May 4 if I still supported off-shore drilling. I responded by acknowledging the horrible threat from the oil spill, and confirmed I still supported offshore drilling. I didn’t believe we could become energy independent without it. Crist saw his opportunity and pounced. Although he had supported drilling in 2008, he was now 100 percent against it. It was a smart political move.

I knew that as long as oil was spewing uncontrolled into the Gulf, offshore drilling would be unpopular. But when the well was capped and the spill contained, over time, support for offshore drilling would increase. People understood the country needed all its energy resources. But in the present crisis, support for drilling, like support for Social Security and Medicare reform, would be a test of principle over politics. My only hope was that voters would give me credit for being serious about the issue and not opportunistic. Time would tell.

Another issue that had come to the fore began to hurt us as well. I was troubled when the Arizona legislature passed an immigration bill that allowed law-enforcement officers to demand proof of legal residence from anyone they had lawfully detained and suspected of being in the country illegally. I thought the law would lead to racial profiling. As I started to hear more about Arizona’s illegal-immigration problem, I recognized that Arizona’s situation was different and more severe than Florida’s. Florida doesn’t share a porous border with a neighboring country. It’s surrounded by ocean. We certainly have an illegal-immigration problem, but it is mostly caused by people overstaying their visas.

The Tucson border sector in Arizona is the scene of rampant illegal crossings, drug smuggling, gunrunning, and human trafficking. An all-out drug war in Mexico was starting to export violence to Arizona cities. Arizonans were fed up. They wanted something done immediately to address the crisis, and state legislators had answered by passing the new immigration law.

When I was first asked about it, I strongly criticized the law and said it raised the specter of a police state. But as I learned more about the situation in Arizona, the provisions of the law, and the modifications that had been made to it, I softened my opinion. I still didn’t support state immigration laws, and I didn’t want a law like Arizona’s enacted in Florida. But I understood why Arizonans supported it. If I had been in their shoes and my state had been overrun by cross-border violence, I probably would have voted for it, too.

Now I was getting it from all sides. The anti-illegal-immigrant crowd was upset with me because I didn’t think Florida should pass a similar law. Pro-immigrant groups denounced me for supporting the law in Arizona. I had managed to unite both sides against me.

For a time, the Arizona law became a litmus-test issue in the national debate on immigration. You were either for it or against it. Like the debate itself, there seemed to be only two acceptable positions: Either you were for strictly enforcing immigration law and expelling all people who were in the country illegally, or you were in favor of letting them all stay. But it’s always been hard for me to see the issue in such black-and-white terms.

The anti-illegal-immigration side often loses perspective on the issue. But the pro-immigration crowd is also guilty of a maximalist approach. They ignore how illegal immigration unfairly affects immigrants who live here legally or are trying to immigrate here legally.

Every year my Senate office is approached by hundreds of people who request our assistance in expediting changes to their immigration status. They’ve followed the rules, paid the necessary fees, and patiently waited. It isn’t fair to them to permit millions of people to remain here who didn’t follow their example and apply for legal status. What message does that send to aspiring immigrants? It tells them they can immigrate to our country a lot quicker if they do so illegally.

Immigration advocates also allow themselves to be manipulated politically, which is something Cuban Americans have experienced in every election. Many candidates have campaigned in Miami’s Cuban communities promising to get tough on Castro. “Cuba Libre,” they shout, and then, after they’re elected, they ignore the issue. Today, it’s common for Democratic candidates to make all sorts of unrealistic promises about immigration reform to Latinos in the hope of mobilizing their support, and once in office they fail to keep them. President Obama was elected with a substantial majority of Latino support even though John McCain was one of the most outspoken immigration-reform advocates in the Republican party. The president promised he would pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first year in office. He didn’t. He didn’t even propose a comprehensive bill despite having Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Why? Because the solution is a lot more complicated and harder to put together than Democrats ever concede. Also, immigration is such an effective wedge issue against Republicans, some Democrats would just as soon keep it than make the necessary concessions that could lead to a bipartisan resolution of the issue.

Immigration-reform advocates have allowed Democrats to define the debate by insisting on support for specific bills that are unlikely to become law in their current form. For example, the vast majority of Americans and my Republican colleagues support the idea behind the DREAM Act, of making a distinction for and helping undocumented students who are high academic achievers — kids who were brought to the United States when they were very young and have grown up here. They’re ready to contribute to the country’s future. They’re not in compliance with immigration law, and, thus, not American citizens. But they are culturally as American as anyone else’s children. I’m sure we would find a way to keep them here if they could dunk a basketball. Why would we deport them if they’re valedictorian of their high school class?

But the bill is too broad as currently written. It could encourage chain migration by authorizing the relatives of students covered by the act to come here. A narrower bill would serve the same primary purpose of the DREAM Act, permitting undocumented students to remain in the country and go to school without exacerbating the illegal-immigration problem. The modifications necessary to assure its passage are not difficult to conceive or write into law. Nor should they trouble people on either side of the debate. But many activists refuse to concede that, and denounce any opposition to the current DREAM Act as anti-immigrant. And many Democrats happily urge them on. I don’t question that many of my Democratic colleagues are sincere in their desire to help undocumented students. So am I. But I’m not so naïve that I don’t recognize that some Democrats enjoy the advantage with Latino voters that Republican opposition to the bill gives them.

There is no doubt, either, that the rhetoric and tone used by some Republican opponents of immigration reform have hurt the party with Hispanics. George W. Bush strongly supported comprehensive reform, yet his support among Latinos lagged behind his Democratic opponents’. John McCain was the chief Republican sponsor of comprehensive reform legislation, but he lost Hispanics to President Obama by more than a two-to-one margin. Most Hispanics have long been Democratic voters. But there are growing numbers of them who might be open to supporting Republicans. Many of them are socially conservative, and worried about the influence on their children of our hyper-sexualized, secular pop culture. Republican support for traditional cultural values appeals to them. Many Hispanic voters who lawfully immigrated here did so for the economic opportunities available here and to escape the hardships caused by the government-dominated economies in their countries of origin. The Republican free-enterprise agenda attracts them as well. But it is very difficult to appeal to Hispanic voters for their support when they believe Republicans are trying to deport their loved ones.

I often feel as if I live in two worlds. I get angry when I hear stories of couples from wealthy families who come to Miami from overseas in the last weeks of a pregnancy, deliver their children at Jackson Memorial so their babies are born American citizens, and then leave the country and stick the American public with their hospital bills. I appreciate the frustration people have when they feel their country is being overwhelmed by illegal immigration.

On the other hand, when I hear some people accuse immigrants of destroying the American economy and culture and stealing jobs from American citizens, it stirs my anger, too. I can’t stand to hear immigrants described in terms more appropriate to a plague of locusts than human beings. And although I believe they are a small minority, I begin to wonder if some of the people who speak so disparagingly about immigrants would be just as worked up if most of them were coming from Canada.

I understand it is a difficult issue. It’s a law-and-order issue. But it’s also an issue about human dignity and common decency. And when we lose sight of either aspect of the issue, we harm ourselves as well as the people who wish to live here. Many people who come here illegally are doing exactly what we would do if we lived in a country where we couldn’t feed our families. If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn’t give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn’t a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here. We should debate our differences on immigration with regard to all the issues that deserve our respect and attention.

The firestorm over the immigration issue slowly died down, but the BP oil spill was an entirely different matter. Crist used his governor’s office masterfully and to full effect. It seemed as if he held a press conference every night to highlight his latest effort to save Florida’s coastline. He took well-publicized trips to affected beaches. He called for a special session of the legislature to pass an off-shore drilling ban.

My campaign was knocked off balance. For over a year, our plan was a simple one. We needed to convince Republican primary voters to send someone to Washington who would stand up to President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress. There was no way Charlie Crist could win a primary that was defined by that aspiration. But I no longer had a primary opponent. I had general-election opponents. My message had to be broader. And we hadn’t yet found one. As Memorial Day neared and another poll showed Crist ahead, some of the campaign staff became seriously worried that we were drifting.

I took my family to the Florida Keys for a few days of rest over the holiday weekend. On Saturday morning I got a call from my sister Barbara. My father was incoherent and barely conscious. Jeanette and I raced home from the Keys and met my family at the hospital. My father’s condition looked very grim.

Another battery of tests couldn’t confirm what was wrong. He was suffering stroke-like symptoms. His mouth was turned down and his speech was slurred. The words we could manage to make out didn’t make sense.

He improved slowly over the next few days. I spent the nights sleeping in a cot next to his bed. He kept me awake much of the night as he called out to his brothers, Papo and Emilio. He addressed them as if they were in the room. Is this what you see before you die? I wondered. Do you see your deceased relatives arrive to bring you to the afterlife?

As it turned out, he was hallucinating, probably in reaction to the chemotherapy. He had gotten an infection from the chemo that manifested itself neurologically. We brought him home a few days later. It was clear now there would be no more chemotherapy. All we could do now was make him as comfortable as possible for however many weeks or months he had left.

— Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate and is author of An American Son, from which this is excepted by arrangement with Sentinel Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio is the senior U.S. senator from Florida. He is the acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.


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