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Rubio's tough line on immigration makes sense

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
April 15, 2013 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Marco Rubio is the leader of "Gang of Eight" on immigration
  • He says Rubio could be a bridge between GOP and Hispanic voters
  • Rubio's support for tough rules on path to citizenship is likely to be popular, he says
  • Navarrette: Liberals who say bill is too harsh don't realize that looser rules wouldn't pass

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

San Diego (CNN) -- Every gang needs a leader. And what has become undeniably clear in recent days is that the de facto leader of the Gang of Eight is Marco Rubio.

The Florida lawmaker, and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, appeared on seven Sunday talk shows, discussing -- in English and Spanish -- the specifics of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that he hammered out with three other Senate Republicans and four Senate Democrats. The legislation is expected to be formally unveiled on Tuesday.

This means that, by Wednesday, just about everyone will be angry. Conservatives will declare the provisions of the bill too lenient, while Hispanics will condemn them as too punitive. Welcome to the immigration debate.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

That Rubio is at center stage in all this is no surprise.

He was always going to figure prominently in efforts to revamp the country's archaic immigration system. This isn't because of what you hear from the Washington press corps, which is constantly showcasing how little it knows about the immigration debate.

Rubio casts a long shadow on this issue not because he is a conduit between the Republican Party establishment and the tea party. Rubio's relationship with that band of activists went on the rocks last year when he warned Republicans that their rhetoric on immigration was too harsh, commended the Obama administration for giving undocumented youth "deferred action" to prevent deportation and declared his support for giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship once the border is secure.

The real reason that Rubio matters is because he could well be a bridge between the Republican Party and those Hispanic voters that the GOP has done such a masterful job of angering and alienating.

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A new poll by Telemundo/NBC News/WSJ finds that while Rubio is not as popular as Democrats like President Barack Obama or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he is more popular than a lot of other Republicans -- 23 percent of Hispanics viewed Rubio favorably and only 12 percent unfavorably. More importantly, he has a large reservoir of undecided voters who he might still win over.

The stakes are high for the 41-year-old freshman senator. By becoming the public face of immigration reform in the Senate, an initiative that includes not just enhanced border security but also that all-important pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, Rubio could make himself more popular with Hispanic voters.

Or, if enough Hispanics decide that they don't like the details of the final product and consider it to be just as harsh as some of that GOP rhetoric that Rubio has complained about, well, then the whole effort could backfire and wind up making the schism between Hispanics and Republicans even wider than it is now.

That second scenario seems more likely now that Cesar Conda, Rubio's very capable and well-regarded chief of staff, has taken to Twitter to leak details of what's actually in the bill. What Conda tweeted was a series of conditions and prohibitions that make it clear that -- despite the hysterical rants you hear on right-wing talk radio -- what the Gang of Eight is getting ready to propose is no "amnesty," no cakewalk and no giveaway.

Conda wrote: "If enacted, Senate #immigrationreform (bill) will be the toughest enforcement and border security law in American history."

Is immigration overhaul in sight?

And this: "Multiple enforcement and security triggers prior to any legalization and prior to any green card process."

And this: "No access to welfare, and tough new eligibility standards to prevent legalization for those likely to require welfare in the future."

And this: "Senate #immigrationreform freezes illegal population. No special pathway. No amnesty."

And this: "No ability to earn citizenship for at least 13 years after bill is enacted, AND border security and interior enforcement is in place."

You get the idea. Senators aren't opening the floodgates. They're dropping the hammer.

It's also been reported that legal status and eventual citizenship will only be made available to those who arrived in the United States before December 31, 2011. More recent arrivals would be subject to deportation.

It all sounds reasonable. It's not exactly the kid-glove treatment, but it does stand to make better the lives of millions of people.

Yet some Hispanics on the left are upset. They aren't satisfied.

One dependably liberal radio talk show host posted on his Facebook page that -- judging just by what Conda had leaked -- what's coming is a "crappy" bill. It makes you wonder what people like this expect from immigration reform -- a benevolent stew of forgiveness and freebies, or an instant makeover from "illegal immigrant" to "U.S. citizen" with no strings attached?

That is pie in the sky. Keep dreaming. That will never happen, and not just because it would be opposed by Republicans but many Democrats as well. And if this delicate negotiation falls through because reformers made the perfect the enemy of the good, what's behind Door No. 2?

Answer: The status quo. An administration that uses local police officers to round up illegal immigrants through the dreadful program Secure Communities, where local police submit to federal authorities the fingerprints of anyone they arrest. An administration which will, by the end of 2013, have deported 2 million illegal immigrants -- more than any other in history. Homes are raided. Families are divided. Grandmothers are handcuffed. Children are hauled before immigration judges.

A little perspective please. Of course, neither side is going to be 100% happy with any workable compromise. Solutions are hard to come by. But we can't set the bar too high. Because what the government is doing now only creates more problems.

Marco Rubio seems to have figured that out. A lot of immigration reformers need to catch up.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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