In an exclusive interview with Townhall, Sen. Marco Rubio repeatedly emphasizes that the "Gang of Eight" framework on comprehensive immigration reform is not a "take it or leave it" proposition. He strongly encourages fellow conservatives to help improve and strengthen the bill as the legislative process advances. Below is the audio and transcript of the full exchange, which will air on my radio program this weekend. Rubio addresses various provisions within the legislation, as well as some conservatives' objections -- general and specific -- to the framework:
BENSON: Putting my cards on the table, I am in favor of immigration reform. I think that the current status quo is unworkable. It's broken. It's dysfunctional. And at almost every level, it's unfair. It's unfair to citizens, it's unfair to people who worked really hard to get here legally, and at times, it's also unfair to people who came here illegally. It needs to be changed, and I entirely agree with Senator Rubio's contention that the status quo, staying as we are, amounts to a de facto amnesty for millions of people. It's a mess. He makes that point; it's valid. Let me also say this: I'm a huge fan of Marco Rubio. Ever since I saw him give his farewell speech on the floor of the House in Florida, when he was going to run for Senate against very long odds -- and ended up beating Charlie Crist, of course, and became the US Senator -- I was smitten politically when I saw that speech. He's a natural, he's hugely talented, he's likeable, he's conservative. I admire him, I respect him, I trust him. All that being said, in spite of my open-mindedness, if not appetite, for reform -- and my positive feelings toward Senator Rubio -- I have some real, serious, substantive issues with what I've seen so far coming out of the 'Gang of Eight.' As I've looked at the bill. As I've read analysis of it. As I've peered under the hood...and so without further ado, we're delighted to be joined by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Welcome, Senator.
RUBIO: Thank you for having me
BENSON: Let's dive right into the questions. As a conservative, Senator, I guess a big picture question I have is, we as conservatives really have a lot of skepticism about the federal government. There's a Pew poll that came out this week; confidence in the federal government is at an all-time low across all demographics, especially among Republicans. And there's good reason for this. Be it Obamacare, or the "stimulus," the government has shown an inability, an incompetence, at doing big things. So why should we trust the federal government to get this right, finally, after decades of missing the mark?
RUBIO: Well first of all, thanks, that's a great question, and that's exactly why I've gotten involved in it. The only way that I know to make the executive branch execute a law is to pass a law that forces them to do it. So for example, one of the things we've known for a long time is that the magnet that draws illegal immigrants to the United States is employment. And this law mandates a universal E-Verify system. It is not an option, it is a mandate. They must do it. We know that 40 percent of the people that are illegally in this country entered legally and overstayed their visas. This law mandates the creation of an entry and exit system so that we can track everyone, not just when they come in, but when they leave. It also mandates spending over five-and-a-half billion dollars on border security, including a billion-and-a-half on new fencing. Double fencing. Not chicken wire, I mean real stuff. So these are mandated things that will have to happen. And in addition to that, it fundamentally changes the legal immigration system, away from this kind of family-based system that's based totally on whether you know someone who lives here or not, to a system that's based on whether you have the talents and the skills to contribute to our economy. The alternative to doing that, I think -- unfortunately, given the political make-up of the country -- is to leave things the way they are and to leave them in place. And the way they're in place right now is an administration that is never going to do E-Verify, that is never going to secure the border, and is never going to do any of these things that we're talking about doing...
BENSON: Okay, well, speaking of that administration, Janet Napolitano is DHS Secretary. A lot of the law here, a lot of the triggers and enforcement is ceded to the Department of Homeland Security. At least up front. Napolitano, just last month, said that the border's already secure. So, I mean, why should we entrust this DHS and this secretary in particular to do a job that she thinks is already done?
RUBIO: Well first of all, we don't, because she'll only be Secretary under the best case scenario for another three years. This law doesn't even get to the first trigger point until year five. Let me say, E-Verify isn't a discretionary thing. It must be done. Entry/Exit in this bill is not discretionary, it must be done. The only thing that they get a chance to do is this border stuff. They have to come up with a plan to secure the border, and a plan for the fencing. And in five years -- that means two years after she's long gone -- if they are not apprehending 90 percent of the people crossing the border, then an additional $2 billion will be spent on border security. This is long after they've gone away. And so, listen, there are always going to be consequences for having the wrong people in government, but the good news is, the wrong people that are there now will not be there forever. And this bill doesn't even begin to award green cards -- and not even award green cards, but allow people to apply for green cards -- until year eleven. Until the beginning of year eleven, long after they're gone.
BENSON: Right. So, the beginning of that process, to provisional legal status requires sort of a two-pronged trigger, as you call it, involving DHS creating these two plans. For border security and the fence. I just struggle to look at that as a legitimate, meaningful trigger because putting stuff on paper -- unless it's the Democrats and a budget -- is something that people can do in Washington pretty easily. How is that a meaningful trigger?
RUBIO: Well, I would just say to you that if there's a way to improve it, we should do it. And my challenge to my colleagues on the Judiciary Committee and the conservatives involved in this debate is to offer a better way. Let's build on what we've offered. I've never said that our bill was a take-it-or-leave-it offer, I've said it's a starting point. If there is a better way, I'm open to it. I encourage it. And I've talked about that and continue to say it. I can tell you that the only way we're ever going to force this to happen is to pass a law that forces it to happen. And so if there's a better way to make that happen, I want to do it. And I encourage, I'm constantly encouraging and talking to my colleagues about ways to do it. I'm actively engaged and meeting with each of my Senate colleagues in the Republican Party here on a way to improve our ideas, and if we can do that, I think we should do that.
BENSON: Senator, the commission. If DHS fails, if the triggers or the standards aren't met, there's a commission that gets put in place. That's like the biggest punch-line in the book, in terms of Washington putting together a commission -- and nothing really ever comes of it. What enforcement mechanism is there? Why is this commission suddenly going to work?
RUBIO: Well first of all, the commission exists at the front end as an advisory group, and it will comment on the stuff that DHS is already doing. Where the commission comes into vigor is if after five years, after they've done these two plans that you outlined at the beginning -- the border plan, the fence plan -- if after the five years, we are not apprehending 90 percent of the people crossing the border, then the commission is given $2 billion to put in place an additional plan to try to reach that goal. The commission is made up of appointees here in Congress, but it also has the four border state governors. And these are not wilting willows. These are, you know, significant public figures who are directly impacted from the border. The governors of Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico, and they're going to have their imprint on this as well. So what the commission does is it creates an additional plan on the border and spends an additional $2 billion to get the border secure. But again, as I repeat to people, if someone has a better way to do this, I want them to offer it. I'm open to that. I'll be supportive of that. As I've always said about the bill, it's a starting point. It's not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. I think we all share the goal of securing the border, and I hope that through this process we can come up with a better way to do it.
BENSON: Alright Senator, last question. I know you've got to run. These are just sort of technical questions. Part of it is, there's a cut-off. People who've gotten into the country illegally after December 31, 2011 are not eligible for this provisional status. And then they also have to pay some back taxes -- the people who are eligible. How does the government determine when someone got here, and what taxes they owe, if they've been doing it in the shadows and illegally?
RUBIO: Okay, first of all, the burden to prove they've been here is on them. So if they can't prove it, they can't stay, and it's not our fault. Second, obviously there are multiple factors that you use -- bank statements, utilities, school records, medical records -- these folks that are here illegally do leave a paper trail, even though we don't do anything about it. So again, the burden is on them to prove. And I would just say, the less documentation they have, the less likely they're telling the truth about it, and I think that's important. And let me just tell you why it's important to have a cut-off date in the past. That's because otherwise, everyone will claim -- I mean, people will rush the border and try to beat the deadlines, so I think that's an important provision in the bill, and again if there's a way to improve it, we should look at that. But it's important that we do have a date in the past that's a cut-off.
BENSON: Senator Marco Rubio, thank you so much for your time.
RUBIO: Thank you.