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.
Few Republicans have the courage to take on the well-funded radicals who want not only to eliminate illegal immigration but also to severely restrict legal immigration. And while they're at it, these extremists want to discourage Americans from having babies and encourage old and sick people to die -- at their own hands if they become burdens. John Tanton, Garrett Hardin and Richard Lamm -- founding fathers of the modern immigration restriction movement -- have written and spoken admiringly of assisted suicide, various forms of euthanasia, sterilization and China's one-child policy. Hardin and his wife, both members of the Hemlock Society, committed suicide when they became infirm, which Tanton paid tribute to in an essay.
Why pro-life Republicans are in bed with the likes of these guys remains a mystery to me. But maybe there's hope yet that they will come around to embracing a way out of the anti-immigrant swamp they've wandered into. Sen. Rubio offers a path out. They should take it.
The alternative is to consign those who were brought to the United States illegally through no fault of their own to live in the shadows, unable to work, study or contribute their many talents to the only country many of them have ever known. Of course, the opponents of the DREAM Act will say these young people should simply leave. They aren't likely to -- and if they did, it would be the United States' loss, not just theirs.
We're talking about kids who want to serve in the military and put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us. We're talking about bright youngsters who would earn college degrees and become respected members of their communities. And we're talking about future taxpayers who would help pay for the Medicare and Social Security benefits many of those who oppose their staying here now receive.
Republicans should seize this opportunity not only to pass the DREAM Act but also to restate the values and principles that have made this country the greatest in the history of the world.
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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