Immigration reform a quiet but powerful force in the room during President Obama's State of the Union

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12 2013 10:45 p.m. MST

Given Republican struggles with Hispanic voters, the party’s choice of Marco Rubio to give its response to the State of the Union was a no-brainer. While many believe Time magazine went over the top when it dubbed Rubio “the Republican savior” earlier this month, Rubio’s youth and charisma and his ability to articulate Republican policies set him apart, even if he were not a child of Cuban immigrants who speaks fluent Spanish.

But it doesn’t hurt.

Rubio’s response to the State of the Union largely sidestepped details on immigration policy. “We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest,” Rubio said. “We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

Rubio’s reticence may be because the GOP base remains chary of where things are heading and Rubio wants to avoid attracting fire to the gestating compromise. National Review’s Rich Lowry, for example, headlined a column last week, “Marco Rubio’s Bad Deal.”

“Once an illegal immigrant gets ‘probationary legal status,’” Lowry wrote, “he has jumped irrevocably ahead of all those poor saps back in their native countries who want to come to the U.S. but for whatever reason were unwilling or unable to break our immigration laws to do it.”

Ironically, the Tea Party response delivered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took on immigration directly, taking a pro-immigrant position that is consistent for Paul, as a libertarian, but would strike many Tea Party critics as counterintuitive.

“We are the party that embraces hard work and ingenuity. Therefore we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future,” Rand said. “We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, ‘If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.’”

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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