MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll talk about the latest chapter in the work/family debate that's taken off from a provocative magazine piece written by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter. She resigned her high profile post after two years saying she needed to spend more time with family. And she meant it. We'll ask our panel of regulars in our parenting segment to join her to talk about her piece "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."
Which leads me to our next conversation: about the American Dream. On this program and across the network we've been talking about the American Dream, whatever it is. It may be the ability to strike it rich, to have more time with family. Just to feel safe. Election years are often a time when political leaders talk about what they think the dream is and what it takes to achieve it.
Now, one of this country's brightest political new stars takes a stab at it with his new book. It is a memoir. Elected to the United States Senate from Florida in 2010, he's often mentioned on the short list of possible vice presidential candidates. His name is Marco Rubio, and his new memoir is called "An American Son."
We caught up with him a few days after his book was published late last month. Senator, thank you so much for coming.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Thank you.
MARTIN: Why did you want to write this book now? And the reason I ask is that for me one of the most moving things about the book, actually, was how you talked about the conflict between your public life and your private responsibilities and kind of the pull you feel there. So this is obviously another burden taking you away from your family. Why now?
RUBIO: Well, first, I think I had something to say and people were interested in helping me share it in multiple different fronts. At the core of it was the question you asked at the beginning of the program: What's the American Dream? And I think the American Dream is whatever someone wants it to be and that's one of the parts of the American Dream, is you can choose what your dream is.
I talk about for my parents the American Dream was providing us opportunities they didn't have, allowing us to do the things they were not able to do when they were our age. And I think that, you know, I say in the book that I was a child of privilege and clearly I don't mean economic privilege, 'cause I didn't even have a college savings account, much less a trust fund.
But a privilege because I was born in a strong and stable family where my parents loved each other, loved us, made us feel secure, and encouraged us to dream and reach for the stars. I think that is an important component of the American Dream and what I wanted to talk about in this book and to share it from their perspective because I think in so many ways that's what's at stake today in our political discourse.
MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit, though, about your parents and your grandparents, are very central to your story. As we said, it's titled "An American Son." Could you just pick one story, particularly about your parents...
MARTIN: ...that would kind of describe for others just exactly what you're talking about? If you could just pick one.
RUBIO: The one story that I would most point out is the decision to move to Las Vegas and then to move us back. I mean, today, for most people, if you're focused on yourself you're going to put yourself in a place where you can pursue your own dreams and what was most comfortable for you.
For my parents, to uproot our family, move us to Las Vegas, and then move us back to Miami was all predicated on one thing and that is the desire to put their children in the best setting possible for them to grow up and be healthy and productive. And the main reason why they moved us out of Las Vegas is because there are too many easy jobs in Las Vegas working in the hotel industry and my parents didn't want that for us.
They wanted more for us and they were afraid that if we stayed in Las Vegas we would reach for that instead of an education and...
MARTIN: Just to clarify, your dad was a bartender.
RUBIO: He was a bartender. My mom was a maid at a hotel called the Imperial Palace, where she literally walked around with a little dustpan and a broom cleaning up the casino floor. And what was happening is a lot of our cousins that lived there were graduating high school and they weren't going to college because they could make $40,000 a year valet parking or working at one of these hotels.
Nothing wrong with that work, but our parents wanted us to have more. And they were afraid that if we stayed in Las Vegas that's the direction we could go as well. So literally they uprooted their lives and the comfort that they had just for us.
MARTIN: You know, I'm curious about that because one of the things you talk about a lot in the book is just how - of course how hard your parents worked but how hard they worked to be sure that, you know, mom could be around, for example, or he could be around to be with you but you also talk about some of the career setbacks that they had.
MARTIN: And the reason I'm bringing that up is that there's been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing over what one of your biographer's has called the Rubio creation story; the fact that there's at variance - you later learned that they'd actually come here in 1956, not after Castro took over in 1959.
You complained kind of mildly about that in the book. You say it's kind of overblown. But I did want to ask, and what's kind of missing for me is has that changed the way you think about immigration more broadly, given that, you know, Haiti for example, has suffered from corrupt and dysfunctional government for many, many years but Haitians are not treated the same under immigration law.
MARTIN: And people from other countries have suffered from corrupt and dysfunctional government and not treated the same. So I was just wondering how it's informed your thinking...
MARTIN: ...about the issue.
RUBIO: Well, that's a good question. And here's the point: Number one, is I don't live in a vacuum isolated only in my home. I've grown up my entire life surrounded by immigrants, whether it's my neighbors, whether it's my wife's family. My entire life I've grown up with the reality of immigration and what it means and the different reasons why people come here and the different circumstances that bring them to this point.
And my position on immigration today is the same that it's always been, which is that our country needs to have a legal immigration system that works and needs to take into account also the fact that there are millions of people that come into this country illegally and others that are waiting to come in legally, patiently.
On the other hand, there's a human element to this. There are people that are here and they may be undocumented but they're desperate because their kids are hungry and they want to provide a better life. In essence, they're doing what almost any of us would do if our kids were in a similar circumstance.
That doesn't mean you legalize it, but it does mean you understand it from a human perspective and your policy has to reflect that. Your policies have to be balanced between your desire to be compassionate for people who are in the circumstance and the need for this country to have a functional, legal immigration process.
I think that's always been my view of immigration. I think sitting down and writing a book where you have to see it through the lens of your family and the journey that they walked, probably helps refine that and sharpen it.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Senator Marco Rubio from Florida about the American Dream and his new memoir. It's titled "An American Son." You know, to that end, as I understand it, you've criticized President Obama's recent move to stop the deportations of some young people who were brought here as children if they meet certain conditions.
They have to, for example, graduate from high school, be in school, serve in the military, etc. I've heard you say that you think it's a political move, but the question I would have is, well, setting aside the fact that a politician criticizing another politician for being political is always interesting. So what if it is? I mean, given the human factor, so what?
RUBIO: Here's so what. The fact is that the only way to solve that problem is through a balanced approach to de-politicize it. One of the things that I first encountered when I came to the Senate is no one wanted to talk to me about immigration. There were too many scars, too many bad experiences that they had felt over the last few years on the debate.
And I realized that as along as this immigration issue, particularly the issue with these kids, is a political ping-pong that one party uses against the other in election years, it would be very hard to solve it. My hope - and it continues to be my hope - that we can view it as a humanitarian issue; the fact that we have these young kids who through no fault of their own find themselves in these circumstances and that we can elevate that issue above politics and deal with a responsible and balanced way.
And my concern now is that the president, by taking this action in an election year as part of an electoral political ploy, has reengaged politics on this issue. We will never solve this issue as long as it is a talking point that Republicans use against Democrats, or vice versa.
MARTIN: Well, isn't that also true of the standard bearer, the expected standard bearer, for your party in the fall elections, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who says he would have vetoed the DREAM Act, which would have made a path for citizenship for these same young people? The president's policy, by the way, doesn't do that. So is your party any different on this?
RUBIO: Well, I don't support the DREAM Act, either. I support an alternative and that's what I've been working on and I think that's what he said he would consider doing as president, is finding an alternative to the DREAM Act that allows us to accommodate these kids, which I've consistently been in favor of, but not do so in a way that encourages illegal immigration.
MARTIN: Give us your better idea, if you would.
MARTIN: Because I'm sure some people haven't heard it.
MARTIN: What's your better idea?
RUBIO: Well, first of all, we have to identify who we're going to help. And I think it's kids that came here below a certain age - probably 14 years of age - have lived here at least five consecutive years, graduate high school with no criminal record. Those kids would receive a student visa, basically, to stay in this country and study.
Once the student visa is done, if they graduate college they would get a work visa. They're non-immigrant visa holders. There are hundreds of thousands of non-immigrant visa holders in the United States. After about 10 years in that status, those kids would then be eligible to be petitioned for under the existing legal immigration system.
Which means their job, their spouse, or a family member can apply to petition for them under the existing system - not a special path, the existing system - and that would allow them to get a green card through that existing system. And of course once you have a green card then you're three to five years away from being a citizen.
MARTIN: And what about - that's about maybe 800,000, maybe a million people out of the 12 million estimated to be here...
MARTIN: ...without proper authorization. What about them? What about their parents?
RUBIO: Well, that's it. First of all, the DREAM Act doesn't talk...
MARTIN: I understand.
RUBIO: We're talking about this specific issue.
MARTIN: I get you.
RUBIO: About the rest...
MARTIN: But while we have you I'd love to hear.
MARTIN: What about the 11 other million?
RUBIO: Well, that's a tough issue because what do you do with that? On the one hand, in a way that's compassionate but at the same time doesn't encourage or reward illegal immigration. After all, there are millions of people waiting to immigrate to the U.S. legally. There are millions of Hispanics sitting overseas waiting to come here legally. What do we tell them? That it's cheaper and easier to come here illegally? That can't be our position.
So that's why the balance is so important. I don't have an easy answer for the others. All I can tell you is that, if we have border security and eVerify that allows us to gain the confidence of the American people; if we modernize our legal immigration system so that our visas reflect the 21st century so that we have a functional guest worker program, so that we have high tech visas so that we continue to protect our legacy as a country that - you know, through family-based immigration. If we can do all of those things and win the confidence of the American people through improved security on the border - which, I think, has improved - and also an electronic verification system, then I think it'll be easier to deal with.
We'll have more options available to us on how to deal with the folks that are undocumented. We'll have more space in which to consider it because the American people have always been a compassionate nation, but it's very difficult right now when people think they're being taken advantage, when they think the immigration laws are being flouted and ignored, to get people to try to do something about that and that's the challenge that I see we face.
MARTIN: Before we let you go - and thank you for coming. We hope you'll come back and...
MARTIN: ...see us again. I wanted to just ask you briefly, going back to the conversation we started with about, you know, the American dream and what that means. Interesting - in your book, you talk about a number of, kind of, poignant moments that you had with other senators where you talked about - as we started balancing your family responsibilities with your public life and you talk about some kind of important guidance that you got from people from another party.
MARTIN: From Senator Patrick Leahy, for example, from Vermont. That kind of relationship is not one that we often see now in our politics. What we see, I think, as just citizens, is a lot of backbiting, a lot of pettiness, stalemate, you know, if you will. A lot of people think that the Congress is just dysfunctional. And I wanted to ask - is it?
RUBIO: Well, there are sharp divisions on principle and policy, and I think those are what you people see play out in the public debate. On the other hand, if you look - what you don't get to see is what happens when the cameras aren't on people. And these are real people. I mean, senators don't sit around fighting all day in the background, in the cloakroom, about policy. I mean, these people have relationships. They know each other. They've served for a long time. They have sports in common. They have states in common. They have other issues we agree on that we work on together.
I think they act like anybody else acts at work. You don't go around taunting your coworkers who don't agree with you on your favorite sports team or some issue that you stand on. People take - oh, you do? OK.
MARTIN: Well, I do. I go around taunting my colleagues...
RUBIO: Well, you don't understand it.
MARTIN: I don't agree with that. I do.
RUBIO: So my point is there is conflict in politics. These are legitimate public policy debates and we should be having them, but you know, these are also normal people that talk to each other.
MARTIN: Marco Rubio is the junior senator from Florida. He's a Republican. His memoir is called "An American Son" and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios to talk about it.
Senator Rubio, thank you so much for speaking with us.
RUBIO: Thank you.
MARTIN: And now this programming note. Tomorrow on our broadcast, we will speak about the American dream with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. He has a new eBook. It's called "Faith in the Dream: A Call to the Nation to Reclaim American Values."
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MARTIN: Coming up, the pretty brown girl fashion business isn't just a business for Corey and Sheri Crawley. It's a mission for their daughters and yours.
COREY CRAWLEY: Ever since our daughters were born, I called them pretty brown girls, because I wanted them to feel good about the skin that they were in and internalize them with the message that, you know, you're pretty already.
MARTIN: We'll hear how they're trying to give all girls a broader vision of beauty. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.