Generational change driving GOP on immigration reform

When tea party darling and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio announced his support for a broad, new approach to addressing illegal immigration in this country — a framework that includes new border enforcement and, controversially, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country — it triggered more than a debate about American immigration and border policy.

For Republicans, it also started a debate about exactly what kind of party we want to be.

Much is made of the fact that Rubio, a telegenic son of Cuban-American immigrants, has unique standing on the issue. I am no fan of identity politics, but this is probably true. Perception is reality, and Rubio definitely doesn’t look like one of the usual cadre of angry-old-white-booger-eating-right-wingers tapped to talk immigration.

Rubio’s not old or white. And unlike many of the usual suspects on the right, he actually brings some delicacy and charm to the discourse. Mitt Romney’s famous 47 percenters can relate to the guy, and so can the other 53 percent.

But more important than Rubio’s ethnicity and telegenics is this less commented-upon fact: Rubio is leading generational change in the Republican Party that, on the immigration issue and elsewhere, brings the hope of recasting the Grand Old Party as serious, sober, principled and capable of enlightened pragmatism when confronting the thorny issues of our day.

And in this generational push, Rubio ain’t alone. Amid cries from the usual suspects on the right this week that the Rubio plan is amnesty, the conservative movement’s other 40-something shooting star, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, rallied in Rubio’s corner. “Senator Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system,” Ryan wrote.

While the “amnesty” critique may have applied to “comprehensive immigration” proposals in the past, it doesn’t here, Rubio contends. “If you have violated our immigration laws, you’ll have two choices: Choice number one, under the current law, is return to your country of birth, wait 10 years and apply for a green card through the regular process. The second choice is if you want to stay here, you have to pass a background check, you’ll have to pay taxes, you’ll have to pay a significant fine, you’ll get a work permit, and then at some point in the future — when the enforcement mechanisms are in place and some time has elapsed — you’ll have the opportunity to apply for a green card through the regular process, just like anybody else would.”

If Rubio’s plan is “amnesty” or a violation of the “rule of law,” then so is plea bargaining a speeding ticket from four points on your driver’s license to two, in exchange for not appearing in court.

In Denver, too, generational change is shifting the GOP’s posture on immigration. Last week, state Sen. Owen Hill, a conservative 20-something in his first month in the Senate, sent jaws adropping when he voted for a bill that would make undocumented high school graduates eligible for instate tuition.

The backlash from the angry-old-white-guy brigade was swift and vicious. But Hill, undaunted, pushed back, arguing with the persuasive force of Rubio and Ryan that our state and our party should stand up for opportunity on behalf of kids here through no action of their own.

On Thursday The Denver Post reported that other Republicans will also vote for the measure. One, Sen. Greg Brophy, explained his evolution on the question this way: “I have cause to think about it more deeply than I have in the past. It’s partly personal — just where I live and people I know. I fell for the siren song years ago that people who are here illegally should just be encouraged to go back home. That sounds great if you say it fast, but the reality is if you look at the families that live here, that’s a ridiculous thing.”

Time was, I was a reliable vote against in-state tuition. But when you meet these kids — defined by the choices of their parents, and eager to better themselves on the wings of their own — you can’t help but see the wisdom of Rubio, Ryan, Hill and Brophy.

All of which signals the generationally guided shift under way in our party — one that is being forged by leaders such as these. When it’s done, maybe ours will be a viable governing party again — a Grand Old Party that places a little more emphasis on the “Grand” values of freedom, opportunity and pragmatic patriotism, and a little less emphasis on the “old” arguments that have led our immigration policy to the same place it has led the Republican Party. Nowhere.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.



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“I fell for the siren song years ago that people who are here illegally should just be encouraged to go back home.”  Years ago?  Here is his voting record: http://votesmart.org/candidate/key-votes/30047/greg-brophy/40/immigration#.UQvUIGfRFjY

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