LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In a stern address seeking to reclaim elusive middle ground on immigration, Sen. Marco Rubio told Hispanic leaders on Friday that they need to elevate the issue beyond the political firestorm of the presidential campaign and instead work to rebuild trust with voters.
Mr. Rubio, a freshman senator from Florida who is considered a rising star in Florida politics, criticized those in his own party who he said he's seen turn the issue "into panic, and turn that panic into fear and anger, and turn that anger into votes and money."
But he said Democrats also treat the issue one-sidedly, rejecting legitimate concerns over illegal immigration by calling their adversaries anti-immigrant.
"As long as this issue of immigration is a political ping pong that each sides uses to win elections and influence votes, I'm telling you, it won't get solved. Because there are too many people that have concluded that this issue unresolved is more powerful. They want it to stay unresolved," Mr. Rubio said in an address to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), which is holding a conference at Disney World.
Mr. Rubio said he'd tried to work on a version of the Dream Act — legislation that would grant legal status to illegal immigrant students and young adults. While Democratic versions would grant a full path to citizenship to those illegal immigrants, Mr. Rubio had talked about a lesser status that would make them legal but not allow them to be the chain for sponsoring other family members.
He said he found Republicans still too bruised from the last major immigration fight in 2007 to work with him, and found Democrats too unwilling to compromise on their demand for broad citizenship rights.
"I was accused of supporting apartheid," he said. "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. I don't care who get the credit — I don't — but it exposes the fact that this issue is all about politics for some people."
Mr. Rubio was referring to President Obama's decision last week to stop deporting those who would have been eligible for Democrats' Dream Act had the legislation passed. Mr. Obama's move doesn't confer legal permanent status, but does potentially grant up to 2 million illegal immigrants temporary legal status.
Mr. Obama is scheduled to address the NALEO conference later Friday, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke on Thursday, saying he would focus on border security and improving the legal immigration system.
For his part Mr. Rubio sounded a similar tone on Friday, saying that tackling border security and reforming the legal immigration system are keys to rebuilding trust with voters.
But he went further, saying that those children who would have qualified for the Dream Act do deserve special consideration. As for the rest of the potentially 10 million illegal immigrants, Mr. Rubio said that solution hasn't been found yet.
"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," he said. "I promise you it will get easier to find if we have an immigration system that works."
Mr. Rubio began his speech speaking in Spanish and then, when he switched to English, joked that he had just told everyone how he'd saved a bunch of money on his car insurance — a quip based on the ubiquitous GEICO commercials.
After he was done, one of the NALEO officials took the podium and assured the audience that State Farm, not GEICO, was a sponsor of the conference.
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