Rubio's shift

The following editorial appeared recently in The Washington Post.

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican in whom some GOP activists have invested presidential hopes for 2016, has seized on the issue of immigration, hoping to stake a claim to leadership in the coming national debate and to revive Republicans' dismal standing among Hispanics. What's striking about his plan is that it appears to depart from President Obama's own approach in details, not principles.

Both agree on the logic and inevitability of amnesty for 11 million undocumented immigrants (though neither uses the word "amnesty"). Now they're just arguing over the price those immigrants should pay as a condition for remaining in America.

Specifically, while both envision a pathway to citizenship, they appear to part ways on how tortuous it should be. Obama would have illegal immigrants pay a fine, learn English and clear criminal background checks before "earning" citizenship. Rubio would have them jump through roughly the same hoops - but only to qualify for an interim legal status, from which they could emerge some time later by applying for green cards as a path to citizenship.

Nothing in Rubio's proposal is terribly novel. It includes tough border controls; employment verification; a workable guest-worker program; and more visas for highly skilled science, tech and engineering graduates.

But the centerpiece of Rubio's plan, a pathway to citizenship with stages, is new for him. As a candidate for the Senate in 2010, he denounced amnesty for immigrants without papers. His position now, labels notwithstanding, represents a shift. It also requires guts.

Conservative Republicans in Congress and statehouses, in thrall to radio talk show bloviators, have vilified any solution short of mass deportation as a sellout that rewards scofflaws.

Yet there are encouraging signs. Other prominent Republicans, recognizing that Obama's 71 percent share of the fast-growing Hispanic vote spells long-term electoral doom, are urging a change.

Rubio, one of just three Hispanics in the Senate, has made clear he's willing to lead. The question in the coming months is whether his party's mainstream, in Congress and state capitals, can be coaxed toward moderation.

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