"We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," likely GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told an audience of supporters at a Florida closed-door fundraiser on Sunday night. He was reacting in part to recent polls of Latino voters that show President Obama leading the former Massachusetts governor by a wide margin. The gap is arguably a result of Romney's hardline immigration rhetoric: He believes in a “self-deportation” plan for illegal immigrants, supports Arizona’s controversial 2010 immigration law being argued at the Supreme Court next week, and has said he would veto the current version of the DREAM Act.
But now Romney may have a chance to back legislation that could win him support in the Latino community: Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has reportedly crafted a new, GOP-friendly version of the DREAM Act. The original act, introduced in Congress by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois in 2001, sought to give the children of undocumented workers living in the U.S. a path to citizenship.
Delve recently spoke to New America Schwartz Fellow Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, and Alexandra Starr, a New America Emerson Fellow who writes extensively about immigration, about the details of Rubio’s yet-to-be-written legislation, and how the DREAM Act 2.0 could impact the presidential race. The exchange, condensed and edited, is below:
Delve: How does Rubio’s DREAM Act deviate from its stalled predecessor?
Tamar Jacoby: There's no automatic path to citizenship. Young people who take advantage of the bill will not be denied citizenship, as critics charge. But under Rubio's bill, the path would be slower and more circuitous. Most young people would be granted what are known as "non-immigrant" visas, which are usually temporary and renewable, instead of permanent visas, or green cards. Beneficiaries who serve honorably in the military will get on a path to citizenship. But others would have to find other ways to get green cards - applying through other, existing programs - and wait their turn in line for visas to come through. Many of those queues are long and slow-moving, and it could take many years to become a citizen. But in the end, the result might not be terribly different than under the classic DREAM Act, just slower in coming.
The other big difference: Rubio's bill shatters the political scenario many Democrats have been peddling effectively in recent years - that they're the good guys championing immigration reform and Republicans are the villains, blocking change for racist reasons.
Alexandra Starr: I just authored a report for the Council on Foreign Relations on Latino entrepreneurship, and I was stunned to learn just how difficult extraordinarily accomplished residents are finding it to switch from being on temporary and renewable visas to green cards. To give just one example, a Mexican entrepreneur in Texas, who has created a chain of sushi restaurants across the state which collectively employ more than 500 people, has been told he may not qualify for a green card. Why? Well, the most obvious visa for him requires that the recipient be of “exceptional ability" and prove that his work will substantially benefit the U.S. national interest.
Because this entrepreneur's business is (for now) limited to one state, it is unclear if he will meet the "national" requirement. I was surprised when I started researching my report to learn that over half of the foreigners who enter the U.S. on student visas become citizens through marriage. After I did dozens of interviews, however, it made a lot of sense: The fact is, it's really hard to land a green card otherwise.
Delve: Will Rubio's DREAM Act be enough to attract Latino voters in the upcoming election, assuming that Romney comes out in support of it?
Starr: From a purely tactical perspective, I think Rubio was very savvy to propose his own version of the DREAM Act. As to whether it would win over Latino voters if Romney were to endorse it, I think it's fair to say it wouldn't in and of itself. If the DREAM Act is really important to you, you'll vote Democratic. What it would do is neutralize the anti-immigrant tone that characterized Romney's primary run. A Fox News poll last month showed that Latinos favor Obama over Romney by 70 percent to 14 percent. Romney can win over more Latino voters who might, for example, like his stance on gay marriage and his championing of entrepreneurialism, by moving to the middle on this issue. Rubio's plan gives him a way of doing that.
Jacoby: There are few bigger taboos for Republicans than legalizing illegal immigrants. President Bush advocated legalization and made it safe for nearly two dozen Senate Republicans to back it in 2006. But that might as well have been a lifetime ago, and support has shrunk dramatically. When the DREAM Act last came up, in 2010, only three Senate Republicans voted for it – and if the bill had gone to the House, the count might have been even lower. Now, thanks to Rubio, influential Republicans are talking seriously about legalizing up to a million young people – I don’t think we should dismiss that as just some savvy tactical maneuver.
Delve: What's the likelihood that the DREAM Act is taken up by Congress before the election?
Starr: I seriously doubt it.
Jacoby: Democratic leadership will go all out to prevent the Rubio DREAM Act from coming up in Congress before November.
Delve: When we can expect to see Rubio's DREAM Act on paper? And how will it impact the presidential campaign trail conversation once it’s in writing?
Jacoby: Rubio’s staff is hard at work drafting a text – I imagine we’ll see it in the next few weeks. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic DREAM champion Sen. Dick Durbin and the New York Times have already denounced the proposal sight unseen. Once it exists on paper, the volume [of dissenters] will only grow. The presidential campaign is harder to predict. Obama certainly won’t want to draw attention to a Rubio bill – it ruins his whole story about who’s trying to help immigrants and who’s not. But Romney has already said nice things about the measure, and I think this could help him with Latinos. His hardline stance on immigration had made it hard for many Latinos to hear him on other issues. But if Rubio’s DREAM Act restores Republicans bona fides on immigration, Romney may be able to break through.
Starr: If Rubio ends up creating an entirely new visa class that allows people unfettered access to jobs (the equivalent of a green card, essentially) then I could see more people being swayed [ to support the new DREAM Act]. Over the past few months, though, I have spoken with people with impeccable credentials from top universities abroad who have been accepted to the most prestigious business incubator programs in the United States who couldn't land visas to work here. The 85,000 H1B visas made available annually--these are visas for highly skilled workers with job offers in hand--are snapped up the very same day they are offered. If you want to found a company, it is pretty much impossible to establish yourself here with any long term security unless you have half a million dollars to invest. What is Rubio going to offer these kids that differs from what is currently on the books?
When I did a series on immigration in Europe for Slate a few years ago, I was struck by the long-term issues that come when you create two tiers of residents. That's not a path I think we should go down here.
Photo credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper and Jeff Topping