Santorum tells tea party group he'd be willing to break up illegal immigrant families

COLUMBUS, OH - FEBRUARY 18: Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a Tea Party rally February 18, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. Santorum is campaigning in Ohio ahead of the March 6 state primary. Photo by Jay LaPrete/Getty Images

Photo by Jay LaPrete/Getty Images

TUCSON. - Rick Santorum, making rare remarks on immigration before an audience of tea party supporters here, pledged to secure the border and suggested he would be willing to break up families if some members are in America illegally.

To justify his comments, Santorum recalled the experiences of his grandfather, who was separated from his family for five years when he immigrated to America and worked until they were able to join him.

"I understand the heartache of well, what happens if you send people back? They're going to be separated from their family. That's right. America is worth it to do it the right way," Santorum said. "We are a country of laws and the best way you can show your respect for our country is to respect our laws. So, this is not a hostile, this is just who we are. If you want to be part of who we are, then be part of who we are."

The former Pennsylvania senator rarely discusses immigration on the stump. But it affects everyday life in Tucson, 70 miles from the Mexican border, and it is a hot-button issue for Arizona conservatives.

In another departure from his usual stump speech, which focuses almost exclusively on attacking President Obama, Santorum took jabs at his opponents several times. He suggested that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who put out a plan Wednesday to reduce taxes, was playing catch-up with Santorum's proposals. "Welcome to the party, governor. Great to have you along," he said.

Santorum also highlighted past support by Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich for limiting carbon emissions. "I was not one who bought into the climate science of man-made global warming. I did not sit on a couch with anybody, other than my wife," he said, invoking a 2008 ad Gingrich filmed with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to urge action on global warming. "Nor did I pass, as a governor of a state, a cap on carbon emissions, C02 emissions and then crow about it that they were the first in the country. I can't remember - it was somewhere New England somewhere that they did that."

The audience had no trouble understanding the reference to Romney and chuckled in response.

Santorum did not let Obama off the hook entirely. "We do have serious threats that this president is uniformly making worse. He's making the world a much more dangerous place as he continues to pull America back" and allows "forces of evil" to go unchecked, Santorum charged. "Our president refuses to call evil, evil, refuses to even name it, refuses to confront it, tries to appease and cajole it, in an effort to reduce America's commitments around the world." He said we shouldn't "just try to make nice with those who are actively doing harm to America and its allies," because history proves that doesn't work.

  • Rebecca Kaplan On Twitter»

    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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