Sen. Marco Rubio, the leading Republican behind the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill, says he “probably should have been more artful in the use of terms” when he said in a Spanish-language interview last weekend that the bill first provides for legalization of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., and then, after that, for increased border security.
Rubio made the comments in an interview Wednesday afternoon with radio host Sean Hannity. In the conversation, Hannity referred to earlier Rubio appearances in which the two discussed the role of border security in the Gang of Eight bill. “I remember when I first interviewed you about this,” Hannity said to Rubio, “and I asked you very specifically, do you support border security first, and your answer was yes.”
“Right, but it is border security before the green card,” Rubio responded. “The problem is in the interim you have to do something with the people who are here illegally so we know who they are.”
The exchange highlighted the confusion that exists about the Gang of Eight bill even among well-informed followers of the issue. From the very beginning, the Gang of Eight bill has provided for the near-immediate legalization of the 11 million, once they have undergone a background check, paid a fine, and the Department of Homeland Security comes up with, but does not actually implement, a plan for enhanced border security. In broad terms, the sequence of events laid out in the bill is legalization first, then new border security measures, and then green cards and a path to citizenship.
At times conservatives have interpreted Rubio’s remarks to mean that he supports putting new border security measures in place before the initial legalization. He doesn’t, and he emphasized that in the weekend Spanish-language interview with Univision. “Let’s be clear,” Rubio said. “Nobody is talking about preventing the legalization. The legalization is going to happen. That means the following will happen: First comes the legalization. Then come the measures to secure the border. And then comes the process of permanent residence.”
Just to emphasize the point, Rubio stressed that the initial legalization is not conditional on border security. “The legalization is not conditional,” he said. Rubio’s statements were an entirely accurate description of what is in the Gang of Eight bill.
With Hannity Wednesday, Rubio explained that he once favored border security before legalization. “When I initially got involved in this effort in December of last year, I initially said let’s make sure everything, including that first step, is conditioned on the border and all these other things,” Rubio said. “Here’s the problem with that: Let’s say that it takes four years to do the border plan. What do we do with the millions of people that are here illegally in the meantime? Do we just ignore them?”
“Second,” Rubio said, “we need funding to pay for all these border improvements, and the way you get it is from the fines that these folks are going to have to pay.”
Hannity seemed skeptical. “Why wouldn’t it be better to just secure the border first totally and then move forward with dealing with the 11 million people or so that are in the country illegally?”
“That’s how I felt at the beginning, too,” Rubio answered, “The problem I encountered is what do I do in the meantime — ”
“How about nothing?” Hannity interjected.
Rubio again explained that he believes the issue of the 11 million has to be addressed first.
The two men did not come to what could be called a complete agreement. Toward the end of the interview, Hannity returned to Rubio’s statement on Univision. “You understand that people read the interview, those of us that didn’t speak Spanish, and it was interpreted as first comes legalization, then comes secure the border, that legalization is not conditional. I think you would then understand why people thought this.”
“Right,” Rubio said. “So maybe, I probably should have been more artful in the use of terms.”
Rubio defended himself by saying that he has been careful in earlier interviews to make the distinction between legalization and path to citizenship and to point out that legalization comes before enhanced border security. But the fact that so many have been surprised by the Univision interview underscores the widespread misunderstanding that exists about the Gang of Eight bill — even as it moves to the Senate floor for final debate.