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Sen. Rubio On Immigration: We Can't Accept Everyone

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Republican presidential candidates addressed big questions in their debate last night. One was immigration. Donald Trump made his case for deporting millions of immigrants in this country illegally, saying we have no choice. Jeb Bush said deporting millions of people was impossible, would tear communities apart. Bush himself has called for deporting those who overstay visas, but he warned that Hillary Clinton's campaign was surely doing, quote, "high-fives," just listening to the debate. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida did not get to address that issue then, but he's on the line now. Senator, welcome back to the program.

MARCO RUBIO: Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: So what is a practical way to deal specifically with those millions of people who are here illegally now?

RUBIO: Well, let me tell you how we can't do it because we've tried and that is in one massive piece of legislation comprehensive. It just can't happen because the trust of the American people doesn't exist when it comes to the immigration system. So I think we have to pursue a three-step process. The first step is we don't just have to pass a law that improves our ability to enforce the law. We have to prove to the American people that it's working, show them that in fact illegal immigration numbers have come substantially down because we've built walls in key sectors of the border, because we have an entry-exit tracking system, because we have E-Verify. After we've done that, the second step is modernize the legal immigration system so that it's merit-based so that people come here legally on the basis of what they can contribute economically, not whether or not they have a relative here living here.

After you've done those two things, we're going to have to realistically but reasonably deal with the fact that we have millions of people in this country illegally. If you haven't been here very long, or you're a criminal, you will be deported. Otherwise you will have to come forward, pass a background check, learn English, pay a fine because you violated the law, start paying taxes and you'll get a work permit. And that's all you're going to have for at least a decade. In my mind, that is the best way forward on this issue and in my mind it's the only way forward on this issue.

INSKEEP: Work permit - you said something on Fox News last night, I believe, about a green card, which would be a path to citizenship. Would you give some of those millions green cards eventually that would lead them eventually to citizenship?

RUBIO: Well, after 10 years on the work permit, I personally am open - after the 10 years have expired - to allowing people to apply for a green card, just through the normal process that anybody else would use. They would have to meet the criteria of the merit-based system. They would have to wait in line behind everyone who's applied before them. That is a very long path. I personally am open to that. That is not a majority position in my party, and it's not going to be easy to do, but I personally am open to that, but again after 10 years on the work permit.

INSKEEP: But a path to citizenship, just a long one in your opinion.

RUBIO: Well, a green card - you can't apply for citizenship. You've got to apply for a green card first. Then after you have a green card for five years, then you apply for citizenship. So if you add up the years, it is a lot of years before someone who's illegally here now could become a citizen. But they still have their work permit, and for most of them, that's what they want.

INSKEEP: Well, what damage are Republicans doing to themselves, if any, with this debate, the high-fives that Jeb Bush referred to.

RUBIO: Well, I don't agree with that analysis of it. Look, this - immigration - the notion that in the Hispanic community illegal immigration is what people want is not true. I live in a Hispanic community - majority immigrant community. All of my neighbors are immigrants. My kids' school is majority immigrant or first-generation. And illegal immigration - its first impact is felt in immigrant communities, especially the negative impacts of it. And then you've got people that are having relatives that are waiting to come to this country legally who have been waiting for a long time and they're wondering why is it fair that someone who came here illegally is going to get to come here and stay before they do...

INSKEEP: I think was a question, though...

RUBIO: ...So it's a complex issue.

INSKEEP: Forgive me, Senator, I think this was a question at least as much about the tone, that you're simply turning off massive numbers of voters that the Republican Party needs with the tone of this debate.

RUBIO: Well, what we have to remember is we're talking about people and so there's a human aspect of this that can be heart-wrenching in many cases 'cause someone's in this country illegally but they came because they're fleeing instability in El Salvador. And you understand that from the human perspective, but you have to balance that with the reality that we can't accept everyone in the world that wants to come to America. We have to have a process. We have to have laws, and if those laws are not enforced, then those laws are not worth even having, so it's a complex issue.

INSKEEP: Are you in danger - is the party endangering its chances in the fall with its debate now?

RUBIO: No, I think of a long as we speak honestly about it and explain to people it's not that we're against immigrants. We favor legal immigration and there's - but there's got to be a process by which people come here. We - as a sovereign country, we have a right to control who comes, when they come and how they come, and is especially fair to the people that are trying to come legally.

INSKEEP: Senator, The New York Times reported the other day, as I'm sure you saw, that Jeb Bush's super PAC is ready to spend up to $20 million attacking your record in preparation for office, not that they're going to do it but that they're ready to do that. Are you ready for them to do that to you?

RUBIO: Yeah, unfortunately, that's a part of politics. The people decide that the way they're going to move forward is by tearing you down. Of course, we're prepared for it. It's unfortunate. I will continue to hope that the candidates will make this about their vision for America's future, but whatever it is, it is. It's not going to change who we are or how we run our campaign. Our campaign is about the 21st century and what America needs to do to not just reclaim the American dream but expand it to reach more people than ever.

INSKEEP: You were questioned in the last debate about your personal finances. You said those were just discredited Democratic attacks. But you've also acknowledged when speaking about this quite a lot that you've struggled to manage your money, Senator, even when you were making a fair amount of money. And I'm just curious, what did you learn from that experience?

RUBIO: Well, it wasn't about managing; it's the reality. For example, I bought a house in 2005 in Miami. And like everyone who bought a house in Miami in 2005, two years later, that house lost a significant amount of its value - not because I did anything wrong but because there was a housing crisis. And millions of people were impacted around the country. That's why I'm so passionate about things like the Federal Reserve and monetary policy because I know the real-life impact it has on people. I had thousands of dollars of student loans that were a significant burden on us. And we were able to pay that off. Today, I only have one debt in the world, which is the mortgage on my home. But for years, especially early in our marriage, it was tough because we had a lot of bills. We were having children. And it was tough. And so it makes me passionate about what people are facing now because I know what that feels like, and I know how - what it feels like to see the cost of everything keep going up and struggle to deal with it. And that's one of the reasons why I always talk about that in my campaign.

INSKEEP: People have also noted that you haven't held an executive position, although you held a high position in the Florida legislature. In a little less than a minute that we have here, what would your management style be if you were the chief executive of this country?

RUBIO: Well, President Obama now has seven years of executive experience, and it hasn't made him any better. I don't think he's failed because he didn't have executive experience. I think he's failed because he had the wrong vision for America's future and the wrong ideas. The job of an executive is to hire the right people, put them in the right position, craft a vision and a direction moving forward and then hold people accountable for the results. If they're not performing, then you remove them and replace them with somebody who will do the job. The most important job of an executive is to be able to put the right people in the right position and hold them accountable for the results. And as president, that's what I'll do. And the presidency's a unique office because it's the commander-in-chief and the leader of the free world. And that's something I feel fully prepared for.

INSKEEP: Senator, thanks very much.

RUBIO: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Marco Rubio, Republican senator of Florida and one of the participants in last night's Republican presidential debate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.