by George Bennett | November 17th, 2009
STUART — Here’s something you seldom hear in a Republican primary: a candidate taking issue with Ronald Reagan.
It happened this afternoon when former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who’s running in the GOP Senate primary against Gov. Charlie Crist, answered a question on immigration at a Martin County Republican Womens Federated meeting that drew more than 100 attendees.
Rubio delivered a six-minute discourse on immigration policy in which he brought up The Gipper’s support for the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to most undocumented workers who could prove they had been in the country continuously for the previous five years.
“In 1986 Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to 3 million people,” Rubio said. “You know what happened, in addition to becoming 11 million a decade later? There were people trying to enter the country legally, who had done the paperwork, who were here legally, who were going through the process, who claimed, all of a sudden, ‘No, no no no , I’m illegal.’ Because it was easier to do the amnesty program than it was to do the legal process.”
“If you grant amnesty, the message that you’re sending is that if you come in this country and stay here long enough, we will let you stay. And no one will ever come through the legal process if you do that.”
Rubio said the U.S. must first get control of its borders and its visa system, which often allows people to enter legally but remain after their visas expire.
“Only after you deal with illegal immigration in a serious way — seal the border and the visa problem — can you then create a legal immigration system that works. That still leaves you with 11 million people that are here illegally,” Rubio said.
While criticizing amnesty for those illegals, he also rejected the idea of a massive “police-state” roundup. He suggested requiring tamper-proof residency and guest-worker cards and fining employers who don’t verify that their workers are legal. That, Rubio said, would bring the 11 million figure down “dramatically by attrition.”
Asked later about about Reagan’s support for amnesty, Rubio said, “I think he did it for the right reasons, but I think it ended up working the wrong way.”
Rubio’s no-amnesty stance on illegal immigrants has drawn some criticism from immigration hard-liners who say Rubio didn’t advance the issue when he was House speaker and the collapse of federal immigration reform efforts led state legislators around the U.S. to propose a variety of state-level immigration measures.