Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

In a Florida Republican primary notable for the bleakness of its attacks, one event offered a singular ray of hope. Speaking to a Hispanic group in Miami, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, took a tentative step toward reclaiming his party’s pro-immigrant legacy.

Harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric has been a mainstay of this year’s Republican campaign, with the remaining front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, proposing immigration policies that variously combine punitive fantasy (Romney’s mass “self-deportation”) with Rube Goldberg governance (Gingrich’s jerry-rigged “citizens’ review” panels to determine which illegal grandparents get to stay and which get the boot).

Expressions of anti-immigrant sentiment on the hustings are hardly new. But it’s worth recalling that in 2006 a Republican-controlled Senate supported immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. Although that reform failed to pass the Republican House, a Republican president, George W. Bush, supported it, saying the U.S. could be “a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.”

Rubio’s positions on illegal immigrants have largely echoed party orthodoxy, but he deviated from the script last week when he said the U.S. must “figure out a way to accommodate” young illegal immigrants who “want to serve in the military or are high academic achievers.” What Rubio was referring to, however obliquely, was the Dream Act, legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who attend college or volunteer for the armed forces. Republicans have largely refused to back such legislation in Congress. The party’s presidential candidates have denounced it.

Rubio’s link to the moderate immigration policies of Bush and Republicans past is significant -- if the senator wants it to be. Rubio has endorsed no one for president, but Romney and Gingrich are both quick to praise him, dangling his name like catnip. With their party facing a lopsided electoral disadvantage among Hispanic voters that could doom its presidential candidates for years, Republicans need Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, more than he needs them.

Illegal immigration is not an easy issue. The prospect of comprehensive reform, encompassing a viable guest-worker program, a path to citizenship for illegal residents, expanded access to visas and a new regime to hold employers accountable, has perhaps never seemed more distant. Yet if any person in Washington could single-handedly alter that calculus, it’s Rubio. A public endorsement of the Dream Act would be a good place for him to start.

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