LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went after the president on Friday for how he has handled immigration and Latino issues, while also saying he wouldn't use his speech for the purpose.
"I was tempted to come here today and rip open the policies of the administration. ... I was tempted to tell you, 'They haven't been here in three years -- what a coincidence, it's an election year,'" Rubio told Latinos at the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, receiving the loudest applause of any moment during the speech. "I was tempted to tell you, 'Why didn't he make this issue a priority?'"
"But that's not the direction I want to go with my speech," he continued.
Rubio's NALEO speech was largely about the broad topic of immigration, and he had criticism for both sides of the debate about the divisiveness of the issue. He said he didn't want to talk about the issue at all, but since Obama made a directive a week ago to halt the deportation of some young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States ask children, he said he felt he had to.
"I've abandoned my hopes of only talking about the economy and jobs, as important as that may be, for one moment and one day in the hopes of speaking to you about the issue of immigration," he said.
Obama's directive is similar to Rubio's own framework for a bill to give undocumented young people temporary reprieve from deportation. Rubio said he doesn't care about who gets the credit -- at this point, he has dropped the bill -- and that he didn't do it for politics.
But Obama did, he said, and few supporters of the policy shift seemed to acknowledge the directive's similarities to the Rubio plan they disparaged.
"I was accused of supporting the Dream Act without the dream," Rubio 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."
The president will give a speech at the NALEO conference later Friday. Presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered an address here yesterday, also largely on immigration. That speech, like Rubio's, called for immigration reform. But Romney mostly glossed over the difficult politics of the issue in Congress, saying he would bring both parties together to get things done.
Romney criticized Obama for not passing immigration reform and gave him little credit for pushing for the Dream Act, legislation that would give legal status to the some of the same young people helped by the policy change introduced last week.
Rubio seemed to acknowledge the fact that Congress has been largely unwilling to act on immigration. He said that when he entered the Senate in 2011 -- after the Dream Act failed in December 2010 -- many lawmakers on the right and left were reluctant to talk about immigration after the failed effort at reform in 2007.
"As long as this issue of immigration is a political ping pong that each side uses to win elections and influence votes, I'm telling you, it won't get solved," he said.
Rubio, as he does frequently, said both sides need to come to the center on immigration. The right needs to stop treating undocumented immigrants without compassion, he said, adding that most parents should understand that people will do anything to help their children if they are starving. He made a similar comment in his book, writing that if his children "went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn't give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn't a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here."
Immigration reform advocates, though, treat legal status for the undocumented as some sort of right, he said on Friday.
"There's this notion that I feel like sometimes people are demanding their rights," Rubio said. "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 being the most compassionate nation in the history of the world."