Marco Rubio’s “Dream Act” and the GOP Vice Presidential Sweepstakes

Senator Marco Rubio

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

With Mitt Romney’s path to the Republican presidential nomination clearer than ever, focus is shifting to the number 2 spot on the GOP ticket. One potential vice presidential candidate, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) appears to be bolstering his chances of becoming Romney’s running mate with a strategy to salvage the GOP’s reputation with Latino voters.

Latinos were a key factor in Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, and they are expected to play a pivotal role again this year.

Rubio has announced that he is working on a new version of the DREAM Act, which is supported by more than 90 percent of Latinos.  Under the Democrat-sponsored bill, undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children could earn a path to citizenship by attending college or joining the military.

The key difference in Rubio’s plan is that it would legalize the status of undocumented young people, but not put them on a path towards citizenship.  And while the first-term Cuban-American senator has not released details of his plan,  just the suggestion that he’s getting into the debate has already created a buzz among conservatives, liberals and key Latino groups.

Rubio has said that conferring citizenship on undocumented youth will create “chain migration” where young people can then sponsor and bring their families to the United States.

The New York Times editorial page condemned his proposal as a “a DREAM Act without the dream.”

But in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Rubio pushed back against The Times saying,

“There is nothing that prohibits them from getting citizenship, we just don’t create a new pathway. Someone would say, ‘Well, it’s going to take them forever to get residency.’ Well, that’s true of anybody. The system has to be modernized but that’s a separate topic.”

Rubio’s idea has received mixed reviews in the Latino community. In an op-ed on the Fox News website, two Latino youth who are activists for the DREAM Act dismissed Rubio’s proposal as a “Bracero program,” referencing the guest worker program between the 40s and 60s that allowed Mexican workers to come to the United States but did not permit them to gain citizenship.

On the other hand, Latino columnist Ruben Navarrette wrote on, “I call the GOP approach to the DREAM Act something else: A common sense solution. It could break a stalemate and improve millions of lives. And it could only be opposed for ugly partisan reasons… While it’s not perfect — and no piece of legislation is — it is better than nothing, which is all the critics have been able to offer, even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.”

Navarette argues that Democrats oppose Rubio’s idea mainly because it could give the GOP “ a leg up” with Latino voters, which he says would be “a disaster” for Democrats in the general election.

Rubio’s notion of providing legal residency but not citizenship also hearkens back to  President George W. Bush’s proposal to create a guest worker program in the U.S.  It’s a model taken from places such as Germany, Japan and Hong Kong but was criticized for leading to the creation of a permanent “under class” that had no chance of real upward mobility.

Gabriel Aldana, a twenty-four year old dream activist from New York angrily said that, “Republicans are throwing us scraps.”  He argued that Rubio’s proposal would only prolong the activism of undocumented youth who have become increasingly aggressive in their advocacy for the DREAM Act.

An unknown in Rubio’s proposal is whether he would include a requirement or option for military service. The idea is popular with Republicans.  When Newt Gingrich in a GOP debate said he supported a DREAM Act with that provision, Mitt Romney jumped in, in a ‘me too’ moment.

Aldana dismisses that proposal with scorn. “For the Republicans, we can die for this country or put ourselves at risk just so we can prove that we’re Americans,” he said.

But youth like Aldana are also disappointed with President Obama, citing the sharp increase in deportations since he took office.  

Outside of the youth who are on the front lines of activism for the DREAM Act, would there be support for the bill?

If the answer is ‘yes,’ Rubio’s chances of becoming the vice presidential nominee shoot through the roof.   The blog GOP12  writes that Rubio’s introduction of his DREAM Act was timed to promote his candidacy right when Romney is “clinching the nomination.”

“Something tells me that [Rubio] wouldn’t have been promoting the plan late last year when possible running-mate Mitt Romney was bashing Rick Perry over the head with the DREAM Act.”

If Rubio can win over Latino voters with a compromise version of the bill Democrats have tried to get through Congress for a decade, he may prove to be invaluable for Republicans. But not everyone is convinced.

Anti-immigration groups on the right have already stated their opposition.  One group, NumbersUSA has started a letter-writing campaign to Rubio.   “Your fellow Republicans will make our voices heard if you support or propose any piece of amnesty or ‘legalization’ legislation (just as we did in 2007),” warned one member.

Risking the loss of conservative voters over immigration isn’t something that Mitt Romney can afford, and that could be the factor that scuttles Rubio’s chances of realizing his own personal dream, a spot on the GOP ticket.  Yet senators Jon Kyle (R-AZ) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) are also reported  to be working on a DREAM Act bill whose details are being kept secret.  This raises the possibility that using a modified DREAM Act to appeal to Latinos while potentially angering conservative voters is a chance that Romney and the GOP may be willing to take.

This story also appeared on WNYC’s It’s A Free Country.

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