PORT RICHEY — Speaking to 600 diehard Pasco Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday night cast the sensitive work of immigration reform as a national security issue that can't be ignored.
"We have to deal with the people who are here now, and I want to know who they are so I can run them through a background check and a national security check," Rubio said in his keynote speech at the local party's annual Reagan Day dinner fundraiser.
The crowd seemed to be with him, responding with big applause when he said none of the 11 million people in the country illegally would have access to food stamps or welfare under a bill proposed in the Senate.
The bill, being put forward by a bipartisan group known as the "Gang of Eight," would require people who arrived in the country illegally or overstayed a visa to pass a criminal background check, pay a fine and wait a decade to seek a green card. It would then take another three years for naturalization, making for a 13-year path to citizenship.
The legislation provides at least $5 billion for more border security and would require 100 percent "awareness" at the southern border with Mexico and a 90 percent effectiveness rate. It mandates that all employers use an electronic verification system, phased in over five years, to check the legal status of workers.
Rubio has been taking flak from the conservative wing of his party, which opposes any reforms that resemble a form of amnesty. Tuesday night, he acknowledged "mixed feelings" on the issue and said there wouldn't be any parades in his honor for taking the lead.
So why do it? "Our job is to make things better," he said. "You can't always be about no. Sometimes you have to be about yes."
He also offered a line of compassion about people who came to the United States illegally.
"What they did was wrong. But I also have met some of these people. Many of them are here because they want a better life for their children. That doesn't excuse what they did but we need to recognize that," he said.
He insisted that it's not realistic to deport them — to which the crowd reacted with agreement — and said doing nothing was not an option either.
"How can you be a sovereign country if you can't secure your border and you don't know who's living in your country," he said.
The dinner drew about 50 protesters from the Pasco Democratic Party and NOW chapter over Rubio's recent vote against a Senate proposal to expand background checks on gun purchases. "Rubio, do the right thing, turn left" and "Represent us not the NRA," a couple of the signs read.
This event has another significance in Rubio's rise in politics. During his bid for Senate in 2010, Pasco Republicans were the first to endorse him in a straw poll over then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Tuesday's dinner featured an auction where the top prize was a Henry Goldenboy .22 rifle, which Rubio signed. It went for $4,000.
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, also spoke about his admiration for Reagan and free enterprise, saying that in America , you can start a business from your spare bedroom — "in violation of the zoning code, but you can do it."
And he took what now seems to be an obligatory jab at himself, taking a drink and saying "water is always good."
He is scheduled to speak at the Hillsborough Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner on May 18 in Tampa.