Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's push for a Republican version of immigration legislation looks like the answer to the election-year prayers of the GOP -- and Mitt Romney.
The freshman senator calls his evolving legislation a conservative alternative to the DREAM Act -- the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors measure. That Democratic-backed bill, which is overwhelmingly popular with Hispanics, would provide a pathway to citizenship to children in the United States illegally if they attend college or join the military. The measure came close to passage in December 2010 but has languished since then.
An immigration plan from Rubio, the GOP's best-known Hispanic, could help Republicans make some headway with the fastest-growing minority group and its 21 million eligible voters, many concentrated in the contested presidential battleground states of Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.
Democrats maintain a significant political advantage with Hispanics, numbers that were only strengthened by the harsh rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates in this year's primary.
Hispanics overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama over Republican presidential nominee John McCain, 67-31 percent, in the 2008 presidential race and they favored Democratic congressional candidates 60-38 percent in 2010, according to exit polling. A Pew Research Center survey out Tuesday showed Obama with a solid edge over Romney among Hispanic registered voters, 67-27 percent.
It's a reality the likely Republican presidential nominee clearly recognizes. "We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," Romney told a private fundraiser in Florida on Sunday in which he insisted the GOP needs an alternative to the DREAM Act.
Rubio, who notably called on his party to tone down the anti-immigrant talk earlier this year, is working on a plan that would allow young illegal immigrants who came to the United States with their parents to apply for non-immigrant visas. They would be permitted to stay in the country to study or work, could obtain a driver's license but would not be able to vote. They later could apply for residency, but they would not have a special path to citizenship.
The freshman lawmaker, 40, is looking at unveiling his bill in the coming weeks. The early outlines have drawn both interest and skepticism.