ORLANDO — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the political right and left for simplifying and exploiting immigration, appearing before a Hispanic group here Friday not long before President Barack Obama took the stage and accused Republicans of inaction on the contentious issue.
"As long as this issue of immigration is a political pingpong that each side uses to win elections and influence votes, I'm telling you, it won't get solved," Rubio told about 1,000 members of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
"Why is this issue simplified? I'll tell you right now: because it is powerful politics," the Florida Republican said. "I have seen people use it to raise money. I have seen people take the legitimate concerns about illegal immigration and turn it into panic. And turn that panic into fear and anger. And turn that anger into votes and money."
Obama came to Orlando having pre-empted Rubio on a plan to help young illegal immigrants and was wildly cheered for the move blocking deportations. (Left unsaid: Obama has overseen the most aggressive deportation record in modern history.)
"I don't care who gets the credit. I don't," Rubio insisted. "But it exposes the fact that this issue is all about politics for some people. Not just Democrats, Republicans, too."
Rubio still had harsh words for Obama, suggesting his move was geared toward the election, a premise many accept but the White House denies. Obama said he acted because Congress had not.
But Rubio also stepped on his own message when he said Obama had not addressed NALEO in several years only to come racing back in an election year.
"I was tempted to tell you, 'Why didn't he make this issue a priority?' Well, I guess I just did tell you," Rubio said. "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."
Rubio has faced questions of playing to the immigration issue, too. In his 2010 Senate run he adopted the GOP's hard line on the issue, though he also did say young immigrants should be accommodated.
He had been crafting a proposal that would create nonimmigrant visas, giving legal status to some children of illegal immigrants. He has worked on it for three months but had not released bill language and conceded Congress may not act before the election.
There was a clear upside for Republicans, who have been eager to see the Cuban-American Rubio take the lead on an issue that resonates with Hispanics, a fast-growing voting base.
Then, a week ago, Obama announced his plan. He did not consult with Rubio beforehand.
Rubio told the NALEO crowd he would have rather talked about how Hispanics are not fixated on immigration and share "the same worries, the same hopes and the same fears as everybody else in this country."
He addressed the subject because, "I think that both my head and my heart tell me that today, perhaps we are as close as we've ever been to a critical turning point in the debate about immigration."
Finding blame with both sides, he said those who are against illegal immigration may view it only as a law and order issue. Yes, it is a law and order issue, but it's also a human issue. These are real people," Rubio said.
Rubio did not mention Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who appeared before the Hispanic group Thursday and offered a softer approach to immigration than he espoused in the primary. Romney did not mention Rubio, either, or his immigration plan.
Following Rubio, a dynamic speaker who received applause even among the heavily Democratic crowd, was Florida Gov. Rick Scott. In a brief speech, he talked about his efforts to grow jobs in Florida and encouraged tourists to visit.
Scott did not address immigration but was asked about it by reporters afterward. Scott said he believes in a federal approach and denied he had backed off his campaign promise to push for a mandatory employment verification program in Florida.
He dodged a question on whether high-achieving college graduates and members of the military should be granted permanent residence: "We need to have a national policy, we don't need to pick and choose a policy."