Rubio's State of the Union Response: An Historic Opportunity to Lead

FILE – In this Jan. 28, 2013, file photo Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., answers a question during a Capitol Hill news conference a
FILE – In this Jan. 28, 2013, file photo Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., answers a question during a Capitol Hill news conference as he and leading senators announce a bipartisan agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws in Washington. The Republican Party's problems with minority voters have preoccupied strategists since November, and it's possible those difficulties will persist or worsen. But if GOP lawmakers allow a far-reaching immigration changes to become law, the nettlesome issue might fade from political headlines and perhaps ease anti-GOP feelings among Hispanics. And if Republicans in 2016 nominate a Latino for president, say Rubio, it's possible that millions of Hispanic voters would back him. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FLA) will make history Tuesday night. For the first time in the nation's history, he will deliver a response to the president's State of the Union address in two languages, English and Spanish. He is the son of Cuban immigrants and, no pressure here, considered by some to be the GOP's greatest hope to repair its shattered image. His bottom line political objective will be to reach out to Latino voters who, quite frankly, have been repelled by the GOP's embrace of extremist anti-immigrant policy proposals, such as "self-deportation" and opposition to the DREAM Act. The GOP is betting that Rubio, recently dubbed the party's "savior" by Time Magazine, will put a young, dynamic, Latino face on a Republican party whose brand remains badly tarnished.

But Rubio has an opportunity to do much more than mend fences for the Republicans. He has an historic chance to show he is not a merely a politician tasked by party elders to reach out to a disgruntled constituency, but a statesman. He can embody the bipartisan leadership in Congress that our nation needs: senators and representatives who are willing to put politics aside and partner with President Obama in an effort to fix the dysfunctional mess of an immigration system that plagues America, tearing families apart and stifling the economy. He can be the courageous leader the GOP needs, one with the guts to wrench his party out of the dark corner of the anti-immigrant fringe and into an enlightened national conversation on immigration reform.

How can he meet all these expectations? First, he should answer President Obama's address by embracing immigration reform proposals which cry out for bipartisan support -- maintaining border security, cracking down on unscrupulous employers who game the system and exploit undocumented workers, and revamping the immigration system so that it creates legal avenues to come to America which reflect our nation's values and economic needs.

But he'll also need to take it a step further. Since the November election, we've seen many GOP leaders publicly recognize the need to create a functional immigration system. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, recently came out in support of the DREAM Act, a measure he had previously opposed. Yet Cantor and other GOP leaders, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), have stopped short of supporting a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows. Some, such as Rep. Raul Labrador (R-UT), have even opposed giving the undocumented a chance to earn citizenship, a political position which appears calculated to appease the hardcore right.

The extra step Rubio will need to take is one that should resonate for a son of immigrant parents who later became U.S. citizens. He has a unique opportunity to lead his party by courageously endorsing a pathway to earned citizenship. More importantly, he can use the post-State of the Union spotlight to remind the nation, and the world, that America will not tolerate a permanent second class status for any human being.

Rubio has an unprecedented chance to forge bipartisan consensus on immigration reform by endorsing, in a loud and clear voice, the creation of a safe, orderly and just immigration policy which keeps America's borders secure and safe, protects American families, gives American business the tools it needs to maintain its competitive edge, attracts the best and brightest to our shores, respects the rule of law, and offers the undocumented a road map to full inclusion in the American family.

To my mind, there is no issue that impassions people more than immigration. That's because it's about our essence as a people, as a culture, and as a nation. Immigration reminds us where we have been and shows us where we are going as a country. Do we want to be a welcoming nation that opens its arms to people from all over the world, and from all walks of life, or do we want to turn our backs on those in need, and restrict -- out of ignorance and xenophobia -- immigration reform that will help build our economy? Do we want to be a fair and compassionate people, or do we want to punish those who dream of a better life for their children?

On Tuesday night, Senator Marco Rubio has an extraordinary opportunity to give the country his answer. I look forward to hearing it.