TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday that he is open to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's plan to let young illegal immigrants remain in the United States, but he questioned whether it would solve the nation's immigration problems.
In a roundtable discussion with about three dozen students at the University of South Florida, Nelson said he remains a strong proponent of the DREAM Act, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors measure. The Democratic-backed bill would grant a path to citizenship to young illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. It remains stalled in Congress.
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is crafting a Republican alternative that would permit young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. with their parents to apply for non-immigrant visas. They would be allowed to remain in the country to study or work and could obtain a driver's license. They could apply for legal residency later, but they would not have a special path to citizenship.
Pressed on Rubio's plan, Nelson said he was awaiting the final version of the evolving legislation.
"If that's the only thing we can pass, then I'm certainly open to it," he said. "But that's not going to solve the problem because once the child — or now-grown student — gets through, what's going to happen to them? Are they going to sit here in legal limbo? Are they going to have to go back to their country of origin and get in line to then come back? Well, at that point they think of themselves as American."
Some Republicans have been optimistic about the effort by Rubio, who often is mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney. They see it as a political opening with Hispanic voters who have heavily favored President Barack Obama and Democrats in past elections. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed Obama with a commanding 67 percent to 27 percent advantage over Romney with Hispanics.
During his presentation, Nelson cited two cases of young illegal immigrants — one a Miami honor student accepted to Dartmouth College, the other a member of the Navy who did two tours of duty in Iraq — who faced deportation despite years in the United States.
"What I'm trying to do is solve a problem," he said later in an interview when asked about his willingness to consider the Rubio bill. "I don't want to see them continue to go through this, where we have to actually go in and beg prosecutorial discretion on deportation."
Last month, House Speaker John Boehner said it would be difficult for Congress to tackle Rubio's bill in this election year.
"I found it of interest, but the problem with this issue is you're operating in a very hostile political environment. And to deal with a very difficult issue like this, I think it would be difficult at best," Boehner, R-Ohio, said.