Republican Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida laid out his reform plan to "modernize" the nation's "outdated" immigration system even as President Barack Obama has yet to act on his pledge to come out with his proposal.
Rubio, son of Cuban immigrants, has focused his plan on expanding the skilled workforce and supporting agriculture, which he says will help the U.S. economy.
The senator, who is considered a likely 2016 presidential candidate, told Reuters on Saturday that his plan would make it easier for skilled engineers and seasonal farm workers to immigrate, apart from strengthening border enforcement and immigration laws.
Rubio, who was elected in 2010 to his first U.S. Senate term, wants to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country by allowing them to "earn" a working permit, and eventually citizenship.
"I don't think that in the 21st century we can continue to have an immigration system where only 6.5 percent of people who come here, come here based on labor and skill," he said, adding that the nation should move toward merit and skill-based immigration.
Rubio, a native of Miami, Fla., explained, "They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check. … They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they've been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country."
The goal, he added, is to give American agriculture a "reliable work force and to give protection to these workers as well … When someone is [undocumented] they're vulnerable to being exploited." The process to come to the United States to legally work in agriculture "is very difficult and very expensive. It doesn't work well. So that alone encourages illegal immigration."
Rubio, one of the nation's most prominent Hispanic politicians, said his plan will benefit his party politically. "The immigration issue is a gateway issue for Hispanics, no doubt about it," he said. "No matter what your stance is on a number of other issues, if people somehow come to believe that you don't like them or want them here, it's difficult to get them to listen to anything else."
Exit polls after last November's presidential election showed that Latino and other minorities overwhelmingly voted for Obama. According to a Pew Project report, Hispanic voters will account for 40 percent of the growth in the U.S. electorate between now and 2030.
Rubio also attacked Obama's policy shift that came in the run-up to last November's election with efforts to stop the deportation of young illegal immigrants and issue work permits to them. He said the president "may have even set back the cause a bit … He's poisoned the well for people willing to take on this issue."
Obama said in December he would work on immigration in the first year of his second term. "I've said that fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority. I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done," he said in an interview on NBC. "We can do it in a comprehensive way that the American people support. That's something we should get done."
The New York Times on Saturday reported that Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one comprehensive bill, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces – separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farm workers or highly skilled foreigners – which might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept.
Obama might outline his plan in his State of the Union address early next month, officials said.
Last summer, Rubio said the he was working on an alternative to the Obama administration's DREAM Act, which is too broad, and would apply to too many people. He told CBS News in June that his plan would grant the children of undocumented immigrants a visa but not amnesty.
"The plan basically would award the kids who meet a certain criteria – they got here by a certain age, have lived here, graduated from high school, don't have a criminal record, want to go to college – they get what, in essence, is a student visa, and thereafter, a work visa," he said during the interview with CBS News. "And after some period of time, probably 10 years, we would then allow them to access the immigration system just like any non-immigrant visa holder in the United States would. ... So they'd be no worse off than anybody else, but no better off, either. No special path. Just the same path as everyone else."
Rubio, who was talked about as a possible running mate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, added that he had not discussed the proposal with Romney as he was yet to finalize it.
Rubio's Cubans parents immigrated to the United States in 1956, and were naturalized as U.S. citizens in 1975, according to The Washington Post. Rubio's maternal grandfather immigrated in 1962 without a visa, was detained by immigration authorities, and ordered to leave. However, U.S. immigration authorities later allowed him to remain in the U.S.