WASHINGTON — All roads to immigration restructuring run through Florida, and the "tough but fair" approach that’s being discussed this week has at its center two of the state’s Republicans: Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami.
Rubio brings his political star power to rally fellow conservatives to the cause. Diaz-Balart brings several years’ worth of behind-the-scenes work and a family tradition – led by his brother, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart – of pushing the issue in the face of Republican Party opposition.
Both will be expected to persuade fellow Republicans to support changes that could fundamentally transform the lives of an estimated 11 million people who are living in this country illegally, and the millions more who want to come here. And both are fully aware that the stars might be aligned just right to make it happen.
"We have one shot at it, one moment," Diaz-Balart said Monday in an interview. "This is it."
Rubio on Friday joined fellow senators from both parties for a news conference about their upcoming proposal, which came out Monday, the day before President Barack Obama releases his own blueprint in Las Vegas. Other Republicans who back the plan are John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The Democrats behind the plan are Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Many of the senators got the message from Obama in recent days that it’s a major presidential priority and time is of the essence, Menendez said.
"The issue of immigration is not a simple one," Rubio said Monday. "But I think we have the opportunity to do it right. And if we do, I think we’ll do a tremendous service to our country. And to its future."
Diaz-Balart has taken a quiet approach in the House of Representatives, which unlike the Senate hasn’t come out with a public plan. Diaz-Balart and other House members have been meeting for several years to hammer out a compromise.
"The good news is, we’re really far ahead," Diaz-Balart said. "And the good news is there’s the political will from leadership in the House and Senate, and I think from both parties."
Their meetings stayed low-key in part because Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had a hard line on immigration. He declined to consider such bills as the DREAM Act, which would allow young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children to stay here. It had the backing of most Democrats and Republicans such as Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who’s also from Florida.
Smith remains on the subcommittee that oversees immigration, and on Monday he characterized the Senate proposal as "granting amnesty." It "compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration," he said.
Florida lawmakers are particularly influential on immigration because so many of the state’s voters are Latino. Every four years, that population – an estimated 17 percent in 2012 – is among the most highly sought-after in the country. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., who was recently elected and also sits on the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, said the Democrats would be happy to consider a proposal that was similar to the Senate plan proffered this week. Diaz-Balart, his Republican colleague, "has been on the right side of this for a long time, and he deserves credit for it," said Garcia, of Miami.
He described Rubio has having a "migratory evolution" on immigration matters that has "found refuge in the position Mr. Diaz-Balart carved out for him."
Rubio, though, has been key in persuading some of his more conservative colleagues that their stance on immigration has hurt them with potential voters, particularly Latinos who have friends or neighbors or their own firsthand experiences with immigration.
Rubio has spent time in recent weeks introducing the ideas in the Senate bill directly to conservative voters, including explaining the proposal to right-wing radio and television hosts such as Mark Levin and Sean Hannity.
A lot of people will need to get behind it in the House and Senate, Rubio said, but "it’s a pretty straightforward principle."
"It’s a statement that we have to modernize our legal immigration system," he said. "We have to have a real enforcement mechanism to ensure we’re never here again in the future, and we have to deal with the people here now in a way that’s responsible and humane. And this does that."