Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio launched an aggressive campaign Sunday for an immigration-reform plan that is being unveiled this week, trying to blunt fierce opposition from his own party to any blueprint that creates a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S.
Rubio blitzed the Sunday-morning talk show circuit, appearing on the five major news shows and two Spanish-language channels, arguing that his vision for granting illegal immigrants legalization does not amount to amnesty.
"First of all, amnesty is the forgiveness of something," Rubio said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "In fact, there will be consequences for having violated the law."
Rubio, a leading voice for Hispanics in his party and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has been working mostly behind the scenes for months as part of a bipartisan group of senators, known as the Gang of Eight, to iron out a compromise on immigration that has eluded lawmakers for more than five years.
"I just hope I can convince people that leaving things the way they are now is much worse than the way we've outlined," Rubio said on CBS' "Face the Nation.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will hold a hearing Wednesday on a separate Senate plan that would legalize millions of illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. But such individuals would first have to pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes and clear other hurdles, such as learning English and maintaining a job.
In becoming the public face of reform efforts, Rubio is hoping to give fellow conservatives the political cover to embrace ideas they have consistently resisted, including legalization.
But fellow Republicans who favor controlling immigration by enhancing security at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday blasted talk of legalization, complaining that border security no longer seems like the top priority.
“When the Gang of Eight was first formed, a publicly stated principle was the enforcement would come first — before legalization. Today, on the Sunday shows, Gang of Eight members admitted that they abandoned this principle and that legalization — or amnesty — would come first,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a statement.
Critics argue the process is moving too swiftly, that senators aren’t allowing sufficient vetting of their proposals and that those waiting in line legally to enter the country would be punished. Conservative groups are also raising questions about the cost of such reforms, saying they would further drain entitlement programs and take jobs away from low-skilled American workers.
"If you're waiting to come legally to the United States now, no one who has done it the wrong way will get it before you," Rubio responded on “Meet the Press.” "In fact, it will be much cheaper, faster, easier and less bureaucratic if you're doing it the right way."
Rubio’s own political future is now inextricably linked with the immigration reforms he is so aggressively pursuing. It’s a high-risk gamble, as Rubio is banking that his advocacy will ultimately endear him to minority and moderate voters previously resistant to the GOP message.
On Sunday, however, Rubio downplayed all the talk of 2016.
“My belief has always been that if I do my job and I do my job well, I'll have options and opportunities in the future to do things,” he said on CNN, “whether it's run for reelection, run for something else or give someone else a chance at public service."