Confronted several times by hecklers demanding immigration reform, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, told attendees at a Republican fundraising barbecue that no country has been more generous to people from elsewhere than the United States.
"I'll start on that topic, how's that?" Rubio said, just moments into his presentation. "I actually sympathize with what they're saying."
Rubio, whose parents left Cuba in the 1950s, mentioned his childhood as part of a family of immigrants during his keynote address at the fourth annual "Faith and Freedom BBQ" fundraiser hosted by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
The event in Anderson, in the state's conservative northwestern corner, has become a go-to stop for Republicans with strong national profiles and potential presidential contenders. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., headlined last year's event.
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Other previous speakers include U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and his predecessor, Jim DeMint, whose endorsement was influential in Rubio's Senate win.
Rubio has been trying to recover from his failed push for an immigration law overhaul, now seen as a political misstep. He helped write the bipartisan immigration overhaul that passed the Senate but stalled in the House as some Republicans balked. Conservatives grew wary of the measure, and the Republican-led House signaled that the comprehensive Senate plan would go nowhere.
As CNN noted, the presence of angry, pro-immigration reform hecklers at the "Faith and Freedom" event could work to Rubio's advantage as he attempts to restore his reputation with conservatives. However, whichever Republican wins the 2016 nomination will have to embrace immigration reform in order to win over Latino voters.
The Florida Republican, who has not said whether he will seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, also stressed the importance of innovative educational programs, saying a four-year college degree isn't necessary for middle class success.
"I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational and career education," Rubio said. "We need more programs that help people graduate from high school and get ready to go into one of these professions."
On foreign policy, Rubio echoed previous comments by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., deploring cuts to the American military.
"When America steps back from the national stage, it is chaos," Rubio said, adding that international conflicts need reasoned intervention. "Does that mean that we should be involved in every conflict? Of course not. ... Only America can play that role. In the absence of us playing that role, no one does, and crisis ensues."