Rank-and-file Republicans and their talk-radio whip masters need to face reality on immigration reform and let Marco Rubio lead.
It's not just the only way to cross a treacherous political-and-demographic tightrope, but it could also deliver a welcome and even decisive boost to GOP ranks.
Mr. Rubio, a Tea Party star with solid conservative bona fides and very real presidential aspirations for 2016, has abandoned his solo effort to join instead the U.S. Senate's "Gang of Eight" and their new bipartisan plan for immigration reform.
Conservatives have greeted this plan with criticisms already well-known from the failed 2007 effort -- the one that prompted talk-radio magnate Rush Limbaugh to dub a certain South Carolina Republican senator "Lindsey Grahamnesty."
But most, if not all, of these criticisms can be addressed -- uniquely -- by Sen. Rubio, some of them now, some of them after 2016, should his gamble on tackling this issue pay off. He's right to do so. It's all about the timing, and his fellow Republicans should take the long view and support him.
By far the touchiest part of the gang's proposal is to grant "probationary" status to the 11 million illegal immigrants as a pathway to citizenship. Some conservatives deplore this as a reward for illegal behavior and an inducement to more of the same.
Of course it is regrettable to reward illegality. But, seriously, does the staunch anti-amnesty crowd expect 11 million people to be deported? That won't happen -- especially not under an administration that refuses to enforce current immigration law.
Or do they expect the illegal immigrants to "self-deport" -- as Mitt Romney hoped? Some unknown number might, if a reform bill were passed -- particularly those with criminal records.
But the reality is that most illegal immigrants are here to stay, a reality that must be dealt with. There is a difference between truly rewarding and simply accepting an illegal act. The difference lies in the fines that would have to be paid by those who want probationary status. It lies in the requirements that they pay taxes, learn English, demonstrate their employment status and forgo federal benefits (i.e., no freeloaders).
Other disputed provisions of the "Gang of Eight" proposal include making green cards available to "probationary" immigrants only when our borders are deemed secure and creating a system for employers to verify employees' immigration status.
Conservative critics claim -- and Democratic supporters admit -- that both these provisions are toothless: The committee charged with determining whether the borders are indeed secure would have no real power, and creating a new employee-verification system ignores the perfectly acceptable E-Verify system already available and drags this provision out to a near-certain fizzle.
But, but, but: Conservatives need to keep an eye on upcoming election cycles and ask themselves what has to be accomplished now -- or later.
Marco Rubio is, by virtue of his Cuban-American heritage and conservative credentials, the star of this political show. All eyes are on him. If he leads this effort successfully, the benefit goes to the GOP as the 2014 midterm elections loom.
In 2014, 20 Senate Democrats (12 of them from either red states or swing states) face re-election, compared with 13 Republicans. Although in 2012 Hispanics voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a margin of 71 to 27 percent, they are more likely than the average American to describe themselves as conservative, religious and pro-life. On the other hand, Hispanics are also more likely than the average American to describe themselves as liberal and in favor of big government.
In short, Hispanics are more polarized, but they are, on the whole, a better fit for the GOP. The movement of a few percentage points gives the GOP a strong boost heading into 2014. It also gives Mr. Rubio a huge boost heading into 2016.
At that time, any part of today's immigration bill that has not been realized -- secure borders, employee verification -- can be revived by a Republican-controlled legislature, with Sen. Rubio leading either from the Senate or the White House. Without reform, the GOP has no hope of either outcome.
And by then, the newly admitted immigrants will have skin in the game. As they become full members of the economy -- that is, taxpayers and voters -- many will suddenly understand that the annual number of immigrants and the means by which they enter have a sizable impact on the economy and the nation's social fabric.
That is what all of us, a nation of immigrants, wish for our newcomers. Conservatives are the descendants of immigrants, too. They should get real, get out of the way and let Mr. Rubio lead us there.
Ruth Ann Dailey: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published February 4, 2013 5:00 AM