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Marco Rubio's Ham-Handed Treatment of the Immigration Issue

Immigration should have been an easy issue for Marco Rubio. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

“Immigration to me is a deeply personal issue,” the Florida senator told Politico recently in an interview. “My parents are immigrants, my grandparents were immigrants, my wife’s family were immigrants, I’ve grown up around immigrants, continue to live around immigrants, so I know immigration about as well as anybody who’s involved in it.”

So Rubio thinks that he knows immigration as well as anyone? If that’s true, then why is the Republican’s approach to the issue so simplistic, shallow, flawed, and utterly predictable?

It’s one of the reasons that Rubio’s stock has dropped with Latino voters outside Florida’s Cuban-American community, which represents just 3 percent of the U.S. Latino population. Rubio’s main selling point to fellow Republicans — in Congress and the presidential campaign trail — had been that he might be able to help the GOP make peace with disaffected Latinos in the Southwest who are tired of being treated like piñatas by opportunistic Republican politicians.

Naturalized Mexicans and Mexican-Americans — who together make up 67 percent of Latinos — want politicians to deal with the immigration issue in a fair, honest, and thoughtful way. They want reasonable solutions that go beyond slogans, simple solutions, and “enforcement only” policies that don’t acknowledge the economic dimension to the problem.

Rubio failed that test on three occasions: (1) While campaigning for the Senate, he backed Arizona’s blatantly unconstitutional immigration law after initially opposing it; (2) He told a reporter for Telemundo, the Spanish-language television network, that he opposed the recently re-introduced DREAM Act, which would give legal status to illegal immigrants who go to college or enlist in the military because he considers it “part of some broader effort to grant blanket amnesty”; and (3) He jumped on the bandwagon of the effort in Congress — led by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX  — to make it mandatory for businesses to participate in the “e-verify” program, which is designed to tell them if an employee’s Social Security number is real, and even became a co-sponsor of the companion bill proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA.

Rubio really got snookered on that last one. “E-verity” is all smoke and mirrors. For one thing, the system isn’t designed to tell employers if a Social Security number actually belongs to the person who handed the employer the card, only if the number belongs to someone out there in the universe. Besides, Smith recently cut a deal with the agricultural lobby — an industry that admits to being a big employer of illegal immigrants — to give them three years to screen their workforce and make sure everyone is legal. And lastly, do you know who is spared from e-verify altogether? The No. 1 offender and employer of illegal immigrants: the American household. Nannies, gardeners, housekeepers, elderly care providers — all of mother’s little helpers — will not be checked.

With his ham-handed treatment of the immigration issue, Rubio has insulted those moderate Republicans who support comprehensive immigration reform — George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Carlos Gutierrez, Norm Coleman, Jon Huntsman, et al. They all stuck their necks out on this issue and took heat for it.

The problem isn’t just that Rubio made all these missteps. It’s that, when the issue is immigration, he’s not in a position to make any. He’s not like most of his Republican colleagues in Washington. He has an additional burden, stemming from his own ethnic background. As a Cuban-American whose father and mother came to this country in the late 1950s — even before that unique form of “amnesty” called the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act provided Cuban refugees myriad ways to enter the United States legally — Rubio needs to tread lightly on this issue. Not every immigrant from Latin America, or the Caribbean, or Africa, or Asia gets the red carpet treatment afforded to many Cubans — at least those who can reach the U.S. shoreline.

Above all, Marco Rubio forgot the “eight minute rule.”

There are Mexican-Americans in states like Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico who can trace their ancestry in this country back hundreds of years. Many of them are rightfully offended when they’re profiled by local police, or words like “amnesty” are thrown around, or the 14th Amendment is threatened, or when college students brought here by their parents are denied a shot at legal status. And so when you’re a junior senator, and you clumsily stomp into that morass, it doesn’t hurt to be humble — especially when your own family has only been in this country for the equivalent of eight minutes.