Who Said Anything About Amnesty?

Not Marco Rubio. The senator can defend immigration reform all day without using that loaded word.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks to reporters on Capitol Hill March 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Sen. Marco Rubio talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in March.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rusty Humphries has everything he needs: radio gear, a microphone, a glass of water, all-black clothes, and a bottle of 5-hour Energy. Nobody has a better space at Hold Their Feet to the Fire, the annual gathering put on by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which brings together America’s border-hawk radio hosts and dedicated teams of activists. They’re holed up at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, a short walk—or more typically, a shorter ride in a black Escalade—from Capitol Hill. And at the end of the day, they will talk to Marco Rubio. Humphries will get one of five Rubio interviews.

First, he’ll talk to the true believers. Iowa Rep. Steve King, who’s campaigned against immigrant legalization his entire career in Congress, sits down to chew over the new Senate compromise. It dropped Wednesday night, all 668 pages, and the people who care are already familiar with the worst parts. King describes a provision in the bill that would forgive undocumented immigrants who’d been deported—not just evaded the law, flat-out deported.

“This sounds like a negotiation with the Palestinians,” says Humphries. “It’s so outrageous, it’s so impossible—it’s most of what they want, so you say we won’t give you these two or three things.”

“That is what it sounds like,” says King.

Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, waiting for his own interview elsewhere, cuts the tension. He walks behind King and aggressively combs his hair. King whacks back at his colleague—“GOHMERT!” The interview continues, very seriously, with general agreement that conservatives are charged with stopping another “amnesty” for illegal aliens, like the 1986 deal that was supposed to grant citizenship to a limited number of people while closing the border.

They just want to be able to call this deal “amnesty.” If it passes and someone living illegally in the United States wants to “come out of the shadows,” he has to have arrived before Dec. 31, 2011. Anyone working (illegally) in the United States who arrived before that date can fork over $500 and back taxes and become a “registered provisional.” The registered provisional will have no access to government benefits, much like the current unregistered, undocumented worker has no access. Six years later you’ll have to pay another $500. Four years later you can apply for a green card with standards pretty similar to the ones every immigrant faces—citizenship test, no criminal record, and so on.

Supporters of the bill have talked themselves raw to prove that this is not amnesty. They’re grabbing batons from a decade’s worth of immigration reform spinners. “The National Council of La Raza did focus groups in 2000 and found that people were open to the idea of letting illegal immigrants stay, but they really hated the word amnesty,” says Mark Krikorian. As the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, he has been writing and rewriting “just call it amnesty” columns since that year. “It’s not that immigration hawks use amnesty as some kind of poison label. It’s the opposite. Amnesty supporters try to change the word because they know people don’t like it.”

Rubio, who has spent countless hours jawing with conservative talk-radio hosts, is getting awfully close to perfecting the jargon. In 2010, when he was a conservative insurgent running for Senate, almost everything looked like amnesty. “Earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty,” he said during one debate. In another debate, he argued it was “unfair to the people that have legally entered this country to create an alternative pathway for individuals who entered illegally and knowingly did so.”

That was Republican scripture. FAIR and like-minded “hawks” call themselves “reformers,” too. They see the goal as a national system on the Arizona/Alabama model—“self-deportation” that makes American life impossible for a noncitizen. The Senate compromise tosses that out. The hardliners think they know why.

As Rubio’s arrival time nears, two activists wait outside for him. One of them, Pat DeFilippis, wears a button that’s been handed out by a rogue (i.e., non-FAIR) activist—a picture of Rubio wearing a sombrero, superimposed on the Mexican flag, between the words AMNISTIA! and RINO. (Cuban-Americans can wear sombreros, but it’s highly unusual.) She’s ready to give Rubio a flyer about unemployed Americans, marked “in memory of … all victims of illegal aliens.”

He arrives. He takes the flier—“Is it two pages or one?” As Rubio folds the paper and gives it to an aide, DeFilippis asks him to reconsider his way and “think of the hard-working American taxpayers.”

“I think about them every day,” says Rubio. He heads in to start the interviews. No. 1: syndicated host Mike Siegel, who kindly lectures the senator about how much he remembers about the 1986 deal. “I was in ninth grade,” says Rubio—a favorite talking point. Siegel pushes Rubio onto more topics he’s already come up with multiple answers for, until finally asking about amnesty. What’s wrong with self-deportation?

“I understand your point on that,” says Rubio. “But I do not believe people in the United States are going to sustain a system of stopping people at traffic stops, identifying them as illegal—the human-interest stories on it are not sustainable.” Anyway, he’s not for amnesty.

“The amnesty is staying in this country,” says Siegel.

“Again, amnesty implies that there are no consequences for doing something wrong,” says Rubio. “And that’s not accurate here.”

Rubio wraps up and carries his jacket to the next interview, a thunder-voiced Oregon conservative named Lars Larson.

“Who was the politician that said, ‘I’ll only be out of office if I get caught with a dead girl or a live boy?’ ” asks Larson. “Our mayor, the last mayor of Portland, got caught with a live boy, and he survived two recall elections. Because he was gay.”

“All right,” says Rubio.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” says Larson.

The interview goes better than that—Larson announces that “I’m gonna call it amnesty” when he talks about the Rubio plan, and Rubio politely differs. Why is the senator willing to provisionally recognize some immigrants even before the border’s secure? “I want to know who’s here now, and I want to freeze the problem in place,” says Rubio. “I don’t want the problem to get bigger.”

Interview by interview, he ably defends amnesty from the charge that it is, in fact, amnesty. Rubio’s gauntlet only ends when he glides past Steve King—he’s still there, hearing the stories of activists whose family members were killed by illegal immigrants—and talks to Humphries. He’s even louder than Larson, and lucky for Rubio he dispenses with amnesty quickly to ask if Democrats would go along with a plan that doesn’t win them new voters.

“I can already hear the Democrats’ argument,” says Humphries. “Taxation without representation! I want these people to vote! I want my Democrats in there!”

“That’s the law right now,” says Rubio.

There are no callers, no weird hypotheticals, no more banter. Rubio has gotten through the immigration bill’s launch day and wrenched the discussion on the right past amnesty, over to his own terms.