Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) looks on… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON – Republican senators involved in a bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation's immigration laws pushed back against critics Tuesday, largely those in their own party, as they made the case for granting citizenship to the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) brought the proposal to the heart of the party’s conservative base in an interview with Rush Limbaugh, receiving a nod of encouragement from the influential radio host.
"What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy," Limbaugh told Rubio, even as he warned the first-term senator against compromising with President Obama. "You are recognizing reality. You're trumpeting it, you're shouting it."
The group of four Republican and four Democratic senators unveiled an ambitious framework for immigration reform in advance of Obama's address on the issue in Las Vegas, but the effort is being criticized by some, particularly on the right, as an amnesty program similar to the 1986 effort that granted citizenship to 3 million immigrants here illegally.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said those criticizing the group's efforts should consider the alternative – a de facto amnesty already happening as rules are not enforced.
"To all the people who don’t like what we're doing, come up with a solution yourself and see how much support you can get for it," Graham said. "If you’re willing to accept the status quo, and all you’re going to do is complain, then you’re the biggest author of amnesty, not me."
Top Republicans have signaled interest in tackling the politically challenging issue, particularly after the party’s November losses when Latino and other minority voters tilted heavily toward Obama. But getting rank-and-file lawmakers in line could prove difficult.
A key component of the bipartisan framework would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, who would be given legal status and required to pay fines and back taxes. Eventually they could achieve citizenship status, on the condition that the borders are secured to prevent future waves of illegal immigrants.
"I know a secure border when I see it – I’ve been there hundreds of times," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leader of the group’s efforts.
McCain suggested that advances in aerial surveillance would make a border security effort easier to accomplish than in the past. He promised that the newly proposed border commission would be made up of "credible people" who could attest to the effectiveness of the campaign.
"It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out," McCain said.
Critics from the left and right have questioned whether secure borders can ever be guaranteed.