Add Bill O’Reilly to the list of conservative media personalities experimenting with immigration reform. The Fox News host told Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on Wednesday that the senator’s plan, which closely resembles President Obama’s immigration framework, sounded reasonable.
Rubio’s proposed solution, although still vague, would give undocumented immigrants legal status and an eventual path to citizenship provided they meet a series of criteria that are mostly consensus benchmarks among immigration reform advocates.
“You have to come forward, you have to be finger printed, background checked for national security and crimes, you have to pay back taxes, you have to pay fines, you have to have been here for a significant period of time, know English and be assimilated,” Rubio told O’Reilly, who has been highly critical of illegal immigrants in the past on his show. “And if you do all of those things, what you get is a work permit, basically. A legal status, not a green card, to allow you to be in this country legally and to work.”
This sounded good to O’Reilly, who even suggested Obama might try to sabotage Rubio’s sensible offering in order to keep Latino voters from giving the GOP a second look in the next election. And in a key shift, O’Reilly suggested that the record number of deportations in recent years and a reduced inflow of immigrants has swayed his opinion on the issue.
“Look, you may know this, and I’ve been very tough on this issue and border security but it is getting better,” O’Reilly said. “The stats show it is getting better. I think they have a handle on it now, and I like your program. I think it’s fair. So, I want you and President Obama to get on the phone and get this thing so it doesn’t turn into a bloody mess.”
For a host who once got into an on-air screaming match with Geraldo Rivera over whether to blame drunk driving deaths on illegal immigration, it was a pretty significant shift in tone. And it comes after another prominent FOX host, Sean Hannity, endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as well.
O’Reilly and other conservatives appear to be performing a careful dance around Rubio on immigration, offering him cover with the tea party wing by framing him as a right-wing antidote to radical immigration reformers in the Democratic party. A piece in the Wall Street Journal this weekend portrayed Rubio’s ideas as a bold break from the left, writing that his plan “won’t please either the blanket amnesty crowd or the Minutemen.” But as reform opponent Mark Krikorian at the Center for Immigration Studies put it to the Miami Herald, his suggestions are essentially “the Rubio-Obama immigration plan” so far. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday in his daily briefing that Rubio’s recent statements “bode well” for reform and that he hopes other Republicans follow suit.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.