WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio‘s attempt to provide limited legal status to many of the children who entered this country illegally is finding a warm welcome from a surprising source: Senate Democrats.
The Florida Republican, who is huddling with Senate leaders from both parties this week, is emerging as a prominent player in the contentious debate over immigration. His search for an acceptable compromise on the long-sought DREAM Act has drawn tentative support across the party divide, raising the chances for passage in this election year.
Of course, the encouraging words from political adversaries could set up Republicans for blame if his fledgling proposal gets killed by conservatives in the U.S. House. But for the moment, Rubio’s plunge into the prickly politics of immigration adds some substance to his rise as a national figure.
“I am assuming that he is approaching this in good faith, and I believe he wants to help,” said U.S. Sen.Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip and a leading advocate for the DREAM Act. “So I am open to any bipartisan effort.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also welcomes Rubio’s efforts in the hope that he will bring Republicans to the bargaining table, said spokesman Jose Parra. Much depends, however, on the details.
Rubio, who plans to unveil his bill in a few weeks, has consulted with opponents and proponents of the DREAM Act. In a videotaped message to Floridians, he said his proposal would provide non-immigrant visas but deny in-state tuition rates and welfare benefits.
He also has consulted with many of the “dreamers” — undocumented children who yearn for a chance to become legal, get drivers’ licenses and work permits. They want the full DREAM Act, which would include a path to citizenship. But many would settle for Rubio’s more-limited version, a chance to at least live and work here legally.
“These kids have been in legal limbo for far too long, and their lives have been on hold for far too long,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, based in Miami, which represents dreamers and other immigrants. “We need to extend a lifeline to them now. Even if it’s temporary relief at this point, I think most of them will go ahead and take it because they need to move on with their lives.”
Little, who has talked with Rubio about his as-yet unwritten bill, remains doubtful about its prospects. “While I think there’s likely a fair amount of support in the Senate,” she said, “I’m very concerned there’s not sufficient support in the House.”
In fact, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, already has warned that in this “very hostile political environment,” chances of passing even a limited version of the DREAM Act “would be difficult at best.”
But Rubio is pressing ahead, hoping to sway opponents.
“We’ve talked with them about policies that would help these kids but still be responsive to conservative principles,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. “The feedback we’ve gotten from them has been positive as well.
“There are a lot of people of good will on both sides who are willing to set politics aside and do something that would help these kids. We’re cautiously optimistic we can get something done this year.”