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Marco Rubio Shows the Moral Courage To Fix An Old, Horrible, Secret Immigration Deal

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Marco Rubio came under intense fire from the Heritage Foundation last week for his stance in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform. Reform, as it must, includes a path to earn citizenship for illegal aliens who can prove themselves otherwise of good character. Heritage launched a blistering attack on Rubio. Rubio, not Heritage, is on the right track.


There was an unclean deal on immigration reform almost thirty years ago, details here revealed for perhaps the first time. It needs to be cleaned up. Rubio’s way is the right way. The 1986 immigration reform legislation signed into law, by President Reagan, was based on a secret deal. That deal led to what Rubio, forcefully and correctly, has stated: “What we have in place…is horrible for America.”

Exactly what was the deal? According to a private conversation between this columnist and one of its negotiators, an understanding was reached in 1986 that future immigration would be restricted and that the restrictions would not be enforced. Thus, politically speaking, both the anti-immigration and pro-immigration lobby could go back to their constituents and claim victory. What they put in place indeed is “horrible for America.”

The anti-immigration negotiators could go home and point to tough sanctions. The pro-immigration negotiators could go come and point to the fact that there were no mechanisms to enforce these sanctions. This was a “political win-win”…but not for America. It needs to be fixed, and now.

To give some idea of what this looks like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has only 20,000 employees, (average: 400 per state). Only a fraction of these are Enforcement and Removal Operations officers to detain and deport illegal immigrants. To give perspective, New York City alone has almost twice as many cops as the entire ICE has personnel. These honorable agents are more outnumbered than were Butch and Sundance by the Bolivian Army.


This is but one example of how the 1986 deal was designed to fail. This was a secret deal (from a first-hand, unimpeachable, source) revealed here perhaps for the first time. Heritage cannot be blamed for not knowing the backstory and thus not having taken it into account in the formulation of its policies. Nevertheless, this deal needs to be taken fully into account in order to unwind it in a fully just, as well as effective, manner.

Heritage claims that creating a path to citizenship will create substantial net costs to the American economy. Rubio counters: “bringing millions of undocumented aliens out of the underground economy will improve the labor market, increase entrepreneurship and create jobs, leading to a net increase in economic growth and reducing the deficit.” Rubio provides a solid refutation. Abundant economic analysis supports his position.

Heritage’s economic error — one of its two main grounds for opposing a path for citizenship — needed to be rebutted. But the rebuttal is not the strongest argument for creating a path to earn citizenship for otherwise law-abiding undocumented residents. There are three even stronger principled conservative arguments.

First, it was the federal government itself, in the secret deal outlined here, that created a moral hazard entrapping 11 or 12 million otherwise law-abiding people. Thus, the federal government has a moral obligation to resolve this predicament in a way that does justice to those the federal government, hypocritically, itself entrapped. Heritage surely cannot wish to defend entrapment.


Second, Heritage’s claim that the legislation being supported by Rubio “violates the very rule of law principle” is, demonstrably, wrongheaded. As this columnist argued last year in Roll Call:

Fortunately for America, the Republican Party and the conservative movement, there is a solid, red-blooded American, good old torch-and-pitchfork no-nonsense way of overhauling America’s immigration laws: enact a statute of limitations for the statutory crime of illegal immigration. … Statutes of limitations are common. They apply to almost all crimes short of the most heinous, such as rape or murder. American law is rich with similar provisions.

In Arizona, a hotbed of anti-illegal sentiment, the statute of limitations for fraud (which illegal immigration most resembles) is three years. It would be preposterous for even the most virulent anti-immigration groups to try to assert that violating immigration statutes is as heinous as rape or murder.

It is indefensible to lump illegal immigration in with murder and rape. Illegal immigration is much more like fraud. Proportionality is a key legal, justice, conservative, and American principle. By failing to make this distinction Heritage does a grave injustice… to the very rule of law upon which it founds its argument.

The third argument — one from the heart — is that Latinos, documented or not, trend more conservative than many conservatives. Latinos are preponderantly conservative — hard-working, enterprising, family-minded, community-minded, patriotic, and heroic in defense of America. (Hispanics have been awarded more Congressional Medals of Honor for death-defying heroism above and beyond the call of duty than any other ethnic group.)


How conservative? Half of our illegal aliens are Mexican. The Mexican “Declaration of Independence” — called the Cry of Dolores, proclaimed by Father Miguel Hidalgo (for which, later, he paid with his life):

”Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once…. Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government!”

Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? …Death to bad government!” These are words that the Heritage Foundation should inscribe upon its lintels! Mexicans, whether in Mexico or the United States, whether in the United States legally or illegally, gather every year to celebrate the cry of “Death to bad government.” To exclude forever from citizenship those who share such American principles is utterly inconsistent with conservatism.

Rep. Jack Kemp, who redefined Republican politics for a politically successful epoch, once made an argument, as advice to U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio, even more important than the proposition for which Rubio cited him in his response to Heritage: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” By embracing a path to citizenship the GOP shows how much it cares. Rubio leads the way.


Rubio also is championing the great Kemp’s stand on immigration reform. Kemp wrote, in 2006,

“Failure to address the legitimate issue of immigration reform could also do great harm to the Republican Party. … In many respects, the way Republicans position themselves on immigration will determine whether the party retains the mantle of majority leadership. Will we remain a party that governs – that offers practical solutions to the problems facing the country? Or will we revert to the harsh rhetoric of criminalizing illegals and even those who provide services, albeit unwittingly? Immigration – including the robust annual flow required to keep our economy growing and the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country — is a fact of life in the United States today. And the only practical way to deal with these stubborn realities is with a comprehensive solution, one that includes border security, interior enforcement, a guest-worker program and status for the illegal immigrants already here.”

Marco Rubio, by championing comprehensive immigration reform, very much including a path to earn citizenship, is showing the single greatest, most desirable, quality in a political leader: moral courage. Rubio, now, is proving himself an indispensable leader for America, for the Republican Party, and for the conservative movement.


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