Linda Chavez

Marco Rubio has thrown the GOP a lifeline; let's see whether his fellow party members are willing to grab it. The freshman U.S. senator from Florida has been a hard-line foe to illegal immigrants, both in his home state and since his election to Congress, but now he is considering drafting a new "DREAM Act," which would offer legal status to illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Similar efforts have failed in recent years, almost entirely because of Republican opposition. But according to the polls, most Americans favor such a measure. And passing it would be not only smart politics but also, more importantly, the right thing to do.

First, let's make clear that Rubio's plan (as reported in the press -- he hasn't actually written language) would involve only those illegal immigrants who were minors when they came here and have led exemplary lives ever since. In order to qualify, these illegal immigrants would have to agree to serve in the U.S. military or attend at least two years of college.

Apparently, Rubio hasn't decided yet whether his limited amnesty -- yes, the A-word, in its best sense, applies -- would put recipients on a path that eventually could lead to citizenship or just permanent legal residency. The latter would be a mistake, in my view, not least because we want those who make their homes in the United States to become full participants in our democratic society, with the duties and responsibilities that entails, as well as the privileges. And who could argue that someone who risks his or her life defending the U.S. in the military should not be entitled to full citizenship?

So far, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has said only that he is studying the issue. No doubt he's worried that endorsing the plan might hurt him with the party base. But he'd be a fool to reject the opportunity Rubio is providing. Opposition to illegal immigration -- as every recent poll demonstrates -- is simply not a core voting issue for voters, even conservatives (among whom I count myself).

The irony in Romney's reticence is that the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act was originally a bipartisan effort to reach some reasonable accommodation on the least contentious issue in the immigration debate. Sen. Orrin Hatch was the original sponsor of the 2001 version of the legislation. But like many others, Hatch dropped his support when he became cowed by the extremist population-control advocates that founded and still dominate the anti-immigration movement.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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