If one thing was clear from 2015’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), conservative activists and politicians are deeply unhappy with President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Speaker after speaker called the action a “lawless” and “unconstitutional” overreach on Obama’s part, and inaccurately characterized temporary relief from deportation as “amnesty.”
But it was noteworthy to hear how Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both potential 2016 presidential contenders known for their relatively moderate views on immigration reform, talked about immigration at the conference.
Rubio distanced himself from the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill he co-sponsored in 2013, while Bush stood by his support for a path to citizenship and in-state college tuition. As might be expected, the CPAC crowd reacted favorably to Rubio’s mea culpa and rewarded Bush with boos.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.
Both men, however, said that changes to immigration law should focus less on family ties and more on economic factors.
The nation’s legal immigration system is “the most generous in the world,” Rubio said, “but it’s all based on whether you have a family member here. And it can’t continue to be based on family alone. It has to be based on some sort of merit or economic contribution.”
“We need to narrow family petitioning so that it’s the same as every other country: spouse and minor children,” Bush said. “Not this broad definition of spouse, minor children, adult siblings, and adult parents, that crowds out what we need, which are economic-driven immigrants.”
Keeping families and communities together, rather than ripping them apart through deportation or keeping them hidden and fearful due to the threat of it, is one of the most important and urgent concerns of immigrants and advocates.
When President Obama introduced his executive action, he made a strong moral call for the United States to be a nation that “values families, and works together to keep them together.” His action would extend temporary deportation protection and work authorization to immigrants over 30 who were brought to the United States illegally as children, and to unauthorized immigrants whose children, regardless of age, are U.S. citizens.
Both Bush and Rubio also said harsher border security should be the first priority.
“First and foremost” we need to “enforce the borders,” Bush said.
“And yeah, you have 10 to 12 million people who have lived here, some for longer than a decade, who have not broken any immigration laws, I get all that,” Rubio said. “But what I’ve learned is that you can’t even have a conversation about that until people believe and know—not believe, but know—that future illegal immigration can be controlled and brought under control.”
Bush was less equivocal about the large population of immigrants already living in the United States.
“The simple fact is, there is no plan to deport 11 million people,” Bush said. “We should give them a path to legal status, where they work, where they don’t receive government benefits, where they don’t break the law, where they learn English and where they make a contribution to our society.”
Neither Rubio nor Bush were explicit about whether Congress should cleanly fund the Department of Homeland Security without attacking Obama’s executive actions, but both said that Obama didn’t have the authority to issue the orders.
“The simple fact is the president has gone way beyond his constitutional powers to do this, and the Congress has every right to reinstate their responsibility for what law is about,” Bush said.
“The president not once but now twice has basically said by executive order, ‘I won’t enforce the law,’” Rubio said.