TAMPA — A Republican-led charge to block children of illegal immigrants from birthright citizenship has become a distraction, said Marco Rubio, the Republican front-runner in Florida's U.S. Senate race.
"The fundamental issue we need to focus on is border security. These other things are really not at this moment pressing issues," said Rubio, when asked about calls to revise the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"If you have a legal immigration system that works, these other issues take care of themselves,'' he said. "Otherwise you end up pursuing public policy that I don't think solves the problem."
Rubio, who billed himself as the most, "pro-legal immigration candidate in the country," before denouncing amnesty for illegal immigrants in the next breath, said that while some might "spin" the ongoing immigration debate as anti-Hispanic, "Ultimately, I don't think enforcing your laws is anti-anything."
"I've been raised around immigration and immigrants my whole life," he said. "Legal immigration is good for America, but I also know we can't be the only country in the world that doesn't enforce its immigration laws."
It was a careful choice of words for a prominent Hispanic candidate caught between a growing national furor over illegal immigration and a cultural connection to the source of that fury. Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants. His wife is of Colombian descent. His mother prefers to communicate in Spanish over English.
Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly oppose Arizona's controversial illegal immigration law, could play a significant role in November's general election, as could the flocks of tea party enthusiasts and conservative voters who want the federal government to take a hard stance on illegal immigrants.
Rubio is widely expected to win the GOP primary Aug. 24. He faces two relative unknowns: William Escoffery III of Shalimar, a small Panhandle enclave in Okaloosa County, and William Billy Kogut of Ormond Beach in Volusia County.
Hillsborough GOP chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush said Escoffery and Kogut have ignored party outreach efforts.
On Tuesday, Rubio also toured Tampa Bay Steel and spoke with a dozen steel and construction business owners about the economy. He said federal health care reform and a looming effort to eliminate tax cuts for upper-income Americans have created an uncertain economic outlook that discourages investment.
Leaders in both political parties, "have failed to confront the challenges of our time," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.