Key Democrat Praises Rubio’s ‘Sincere Conversion’ On Immigration Reform

An election-year effort by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to advance a scaled-back DREAM Act is drawing praise from Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), the Democrats’ most vocal crusader for comprehensive immigration reform.

“The problem [on immigration reform] has never been the Democratic Party. The problem has been Republican votes,” Gutiérrez told TPM in an interview Tuesday. “And Rubio is the first light reaching out of the tunnel. So I wish him success.”

Rubio has yet to release his bill, but he says it will offer legal residency to some undocumented immigrants raised in the United States and give them the opportunity to seek citizenship through the regular channels.The freshman senator’s efforts are being considered by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who took a hardline restrictionist stance during the primary but is hoping to court Hispanic voters ahead of the election. He’s taking fire from low-immigration conservatives, but some Republicans have cautiously praised his work-in-progress plan. Even so, Rubio is already pointing fingers at the White House for the expected failure of his proposal, which remains a long-shot in Congress.

Gutiérrez said he believes Rubio’s motives for jumping on the bandwagon are genuine, and gave him credit for having “come a long way” since his 2010 opposition to the DREAM Act as a candidate.

“Look, what I’ve gotten from people on the ground in Florida is that he has sincerely converted to the issue,” the congressman said. And “if that sincere conversion happens to align itself conveniently with overtures to Latinos, I kind of say, so what?”

Rubio’s primary obstacle is members of his own party, which has aggressively opposed efforts to normalize the status of illegal immigrants.

“I haven’t seen the details of the bill,” Gutiérrez said. “But if he comes forward with something that stops the deportations, and is sensible and reasonable … I feel I know where the Democrats are going to be — 95 percent, maybe more, we’ll be on board.” Democrats, he said, want comprehensive immigration reform that goes well beyond the DREAM Act but won’t stand in the way of progress on stopping deportations and easing immigrant struggles.

But even if Rubio finds enough Republicans to join Senate Democrats to pass the bill, the outlook is far worse in the Republican-dominated House, as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has warned. Gutiérrez agrees that it would be “extremely difficult” but said he hasn’t given up hope.

“If they can get half or even a third of their caucus it’s done,” he said.