ORLANDO, Fla. – It may not have been the speech Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had envisioned giving.
One week after President Obama pre-empted him by taking executive action to halt some deportations, Rubio delivered a call for bipartisan action on immigration reform – then blasted the president’s implementation of his own idea as election-year politics.
“I don’t care who gets the credit,” Rubio, a potential Mitt Romney running mate, told a ballroom of 1,000 Hispanic leaders at the annual NALEO conference. “I don’t. But it exposes the fact that this issue is all about politics for some people. Not just Democrats, Republicans too.”
Rubio’s own proposal is a scaled-back version of the DREAM Act, a bipartisan measure introduced more than a decade ago, last brought to the floor by Senate Democrats in December 2010. The Florida senator has yet to introduce legislation since he first raised the idea months ago, and some critics have argued that with the Senate to adjourn shortly for the summer, Rubio’s slow rollout of his idea was more political maneuver than good-faith effort.
Rubio fired back at those critics Friday afternoon, telling the crowd, “I wasn’t looking for a talking point.”
“I wasn’t looking to influence the election in November,” he said. “I was looking to help these kids that I’ve met. These aren’t kids I’ve read about in the newspaper, these are people that I have met, who came here when they were five, who didn’t even know they were undocumented until they applied to go to college.”
In an impassioned speech devoted entirely to the topic of immigration reform, Rubio – who addressed the influential Hispanic organization on Friday ahead of Obama – at once decried the politics of the issue and took aim at those across the aisle.
“I was tempted to come here today and rip open the policies of the administration,” Rubio said. “I know in a few moments you’ll hear from the president. I was tempted to come here and tell you, hey, he hasn’t been here in three years. What a coincidence; it’s an election year. I was tempted to tell you, why didn’t he make this issue a priority?”
Some in the ballroom of the Disney Contemporary Resort responded with applause; others gave a few jeers.
“I guess I just did tell you,” Rubio continued, to laughter. “But that’s not the direction I want to go in my speech. Because if I did, if that’s what I came here to talk to you about, then I would be doing the exact same thing that I just criticized.”
Of his own scaled-back DREAM Act effort, Rubio argued, “I proposed some specific ideas and I publicly talked about it; the reaction from many on the left was an immediate dismissal.”
“I saw people say on the left that I was proposing a new three-fifths compromise, harkening back to the days when a slave was only considered three-fifths of a person,” he said. “I was accused of supporting apartheid. I was accused of supporting a DREAM Act without a dream.”
He added: “Of course, a few months later, the president takes a similar idea and implements it through executive action and now it’s the greatest idea in the world.”
Notable in Rubio’s speech was his call for a “balanced approach” to immigration reform – a phrase that Democrats have employed when talking about debt reduction.
He urged both parties to abandon the heated rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate and said that when he first arrived in the Senate, he tried to bring up the issue with fellow senators but that “too many people had been beat up by what had happened four or five years before.”
“I’d try to raise the issue and people would say, ‘Look, I just don’t want to go there again. I tried that five years ago, I tried that three years ago, and all I got was grief,’” Rubio said. “That’s the impression I got when I walked into the Senate, and I want you to know, it wasn’t just Republicans. It was senators who had been burned by the way this issue was discussed and approached, and just really didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”
One thing he has learned, he told the crowd, is “how truly complicated this issue has become.”
“Both sides like to talk about this issue like it’s an easy yes-or-no answer,” Rubio said. “It’s much more complicated than that. And those of us involved in the debate need to start to recognize that openly – that both sides of it raise valid points.”
To those who focus solely on the problem of illegal immigration, he issued a call to view the debate in more human terms.
“Yes, it is a law-and-order issue, but it’s also a human issue,” he said. “These are real people. These are human beings who have children and hopes and dreams. These are people who are doing what virtually any of us would do if our children were hungry, if their country were dangerous, if they had no hope for their future. Who among us would not do whatever it took to feed our children and provide for them a better future?”
The other side, Rubio continued, “is equally guilty of oversimplifying it; illegal immigration is a real problem.”
“Sometimes I feel like people are demanding their rights,” he told the crowd. “The truth is there is no right to illegally immigrate to the United States. And when we talk about illegal immigration, it’s not about demanding rights; it’s about appealing to the compassion of the most compassionate nation in the history of the world.”
The argument by some immigration-reform advocates that those concerned with illegal immigration are “anti-Hispanic” and “anti-immigrant” is “ridiculous,” Rubio said. And in what appeared to be his most direct admonition of those in the GOP’s far right, he also contended that “some people take the legitimate concerns of illegal immigration and turn it into panic and turn that panic into fear and anger and turn that anger into votes and money.”
Some political forces want the immigration debate to continue to be deadlocked, Rubio argued, because “they have concluded that this issue unresolved is more powerful.”
“They want it to stay unresolved -- it’s easier to influence elections,” he said. “It’s easier to use to raise money.”
Rubio -- like Romney, who addressed the conference on Thursday -- offered few specifics about how to resolve the debate, particularly regarding undocumented immigrants. But he suggested that compromise is the only way forward.
“I’ve talked about what you do about the kids, but what about everybody else?” he said. “Here’s the truth, if we’re honest with ourselves: We don’t know yet. It’s not easy. I know we’re not going to round up and deport 12 million people. I know we’re not going to grant amnesty to 12 million people. Somewhere between those two ideas is the solution – that will never be easy, but I promise you it will get easier to find if we have a legal immigration system that works and the confidence of the American people that we’re serious about enforcing the laws.”