"It's really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care if they think you want to deport their grandmother," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told National Journal's Major Garrett just weeks after more than 70 percent of Latino voters helped re-elect President Obama. "I mean, it's very difficult to get people to listen to anything else you are saying."
Rubio is right: Republicans are never going to win a competitive portion of the Latino, or Asian, vote as long as their stated policy on immigration is that sizable portions of those populations must be deported (or, in Mitt Romney's words, that they must "self-deport").
And Rubio should be commended for taking the lead and articulating a plan to deal with not just the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States today, but also to modernize our nation's entire immigration system.
Unfortunately, the few specifics Rubio has named are almost identical to the failed amnesty plans of Presidents Bush and Obama. Don't take my word for it -- just ask Miami Herald political reporter Marc Caputo, or pro-amnesty Mother Jones reporter Adam Serwer, or anti-amnesty Center for Immigration Studies chief Mark Krikorian. All of them have compared the Obama and Rubio immigration plans, and all of them have concluded the two plans are almost identical.
Both Obama and Rubio support a guest worker program, more workplace enforcement through the federal government's E-Verify program, higher levels of legal immigration, immediate citizenship for those illegal immigrants who entered the United States as minors and amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants who are in the United States today.
There are really only two minor differences between Obama and Rubio on immigration. First, Obama has set a 13-year process for granting citizenship to these in the country illegally today, while Rubio has not specified how many years they should wait. Second, Obama wants one comprehensive bill covering all of the above items, while Rubio would prefer a series of smaller bills.
Not that Rubio is wedded to even that idea. "It's not a line in the sand for me," Rubio told the Wall Street Journal about his preference for piecemeal bills.
Both Obama and Rubio swear up and down that their "path to citizenship," as they call it, is not amnesty because those here illegally today would have to jump through a series of hoops before they obtained legal status. Both Obama and Rubio would require illegal immigrants to: prove they were in the United States for a lengthy period of time, undergo a background check, pay a fine, pay back taxes and prove they have learned English.
But even these minimal requirements would obviously never be enforced. Just imagine if a grandmother came forward, passed a background check, paid her taxes and fines but failed her English test. Would Rubio deport her? Of course not. As Rubio admitted above, no one is going to vote for you if you threaten to deport their grandmother.
So how can a conservative both be true to his or her principles and avoid alienating those millions of voters who don't want to see their loved ones deported?
Boston College political science professor Peter Skerry has outlined such a proposal in the most recent National Affairs. Skerry advises conservatives to offer those who illegally enter the country a choice: either return home and apply for citizenship like everyone else, or stay and become permanent noncitizen residents. Those with serious criminal records would, of course, not be eligible. Aside from that minimal requirement, no one else would face deportation. No English tests or other phony past records would be necessary.
Conservatives will never win sizeable portions of the Asian or Latino votes if they are constantly the bad guys of immigration enforcement policy. The Obama-Rubio plan forever keeps Republicans in that role. Permanent noncitizen resident status is one proposal conservatives should consider to get around that problem.
Conn Carroll (ccarroll@washington examiner.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.