It’s not terribly surprising that a Republican Party that has failed to effectively counter the rise of Trump is now trying to rally around Marco Rubio as the great “establishment” hope. The hope is that the Cuban-American Senator from Florida can help the GOP present general election voters with a sharp contrast with the outright nativism that has defined Trump’s candidacy.
Common sense dictates that a contrast to Trump’s runaway xenophobia is necessary both in the primary and in the general. Trump’s rhetoric and radicalism is something new and something dangerous in American politics. The very idea that we are going to forcibly remove from America 11 million settled immigrants and millions of their U.S. citizen children in 18–24 months is profoundly ugly and un-American. It would constitute the largest forced migration in modern history — from a country that relies on its reputation to assert influence in the world and a people that self-identify as a nation of immigrants.
Unfortunately, Rubio embodies a Republican Party that has not only failed to sufficiently challenge Trump or his ideas, but also has been sucked into Trump’s toxic undertow. This is most notable on the issue of immigration.
During the primary season, Rubio has proven himself more of a shape-shifting opportunist than a leader capable of standing up to Trump. First, and is well-known, he turned his back on the Senate comprehensive immigration bill that he once championed. But he didn’t stop there. Rubio has not only allowed Trump to dictate the terms of the immigration debate, but he also has adopted a series of hard-right positions that are at odds with both sensible immigration policy and the Republicans’ 2016 general election and long-term needs.
Rubio argues for a step-by-step approach to immigration: border security, mandatory E-Verify, entry-exit systems and legal immigration reforms. Then, says Rubio, if illegal immigration is “under control” he might support work permits for some of the undocumented. Of course, Rubio refuses to specify what “under control” means, and ignores the fact that net migration from Mexico has fallen below zero, as more Mexican immigrants are leaving America than entering.
According to Rubio, a decade after illegal immigration is “under control” and work permits have been issued, he would be prepared to have a conversation about keeping citizenship on the table — a timetable that means such a conversation would take place after even a potential two-term Rubio presidency. As MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin explained:
“No one knows when this 10-year-or-so clock actually begins. In fact, it’s still not clear when people will gain just temporary protection from deportation, let alone a path to a green card and citizenship … every day the enforcement measures, especially provisions that block hiring undocumented immigrants, are in place without some temporary legalization component, then the plan is effectively Mitt Romney’s ‘self-deportation.’”
In fact, Rubio’s supposed support for an eventual “path to citizenship” is, in reality, a path to nowhere. It has more to do with fooling donors and journalists, as well as desperately trying and failing to avoid the flip-flopper label, than it does with fixing our broken immigration system. And Rubio’s larger vision of a step-by-step approach simply wouldn’t forge a new and workable immigration system. Only by simultaneously addressing border and interior enforcement, visa reforms to better align legal immigration with economic realities, and implementing a serious plan for the undocumented population to come forward and earn legalization, can you expect to overhaul the broken status quo. The Rubio “plan” is a political and rhetorical sales job, not a policy proposal to take seriously.
Rubio also recently promised to end DACA on day one of his potential presidency — subjecting some 700,000 Dreamers to potential deportation. It was another immigration backtrack from Rubio, who had earlier said that ending DACA immediately would be “deeply disruptive” for these young Americans in all but paperwork.
In the end, Rubio has perfected the art of wrapping hardline immigration policies in softer rhetorical packaging. But once you move past his consultant-crafted talking points and unpack what he’s actually proposing, Rubio favors aggressive enforcement-first policies that would end up looking an awful lot like Mitt Romney’s infamous embrace of “self-deportation.”
Yes, at one time Rubio would have presented a credible alternative to Trump’s nativism. Yet instead of sticking up for the Senate immigration bill, which passed 68–32 and remains a popular approach with the general public, Rubio backed away in the face of conservative criticism. A different leader would have stood up for his lone legislative accomplishment, and could have pointed to a range of the Senate bill’s provisions that helped secure Republican votes. For example, the bill would have ushered in enforcement measures as the border, at the point of hire and at our air and seaports that could have been promoted among GOPers as the biggest expansion of border security in American history (of course, immigrant advocates protested against the excesses of the Senate bill’s final enforcement measures, but Democrats went along in order to pass the bill on a bipartisan basis).
Truth is, the GOP’s last great hope for a candidate who tried to help the party embrace the changing face of America — not demonize it or deport it — is already gone from the race. It was Jeb Bush who was the most willing to take on Trump’s rampant xenophobia, even if his attempts came off as clumsy in the face of Trump’s incessant bullying. Instead of stepping up to Trump, Rubio and the Republican “establishment’s” lack of fight mean they are complicit in the mainstreaming of Trump’s dangerous ideas.
It looks like it will be on the rest of us to step up and defend who we are as a country against a bigoted bully who is now dangerously close to the presidency.