(CBS News) LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been widely discussed as a potential vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney, laid into both Democrats and Republicans for politicizing the immigration debate in a way that he said is standing in the way of reform.
Addressing hundreds of Hispanic activists at a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Rubio said he had planned to speak about the economy and jobs, but changed his mind to focus on immigration because "both my head and my heart tell me today, perhaps we are as close as we've ever been to a critical turning point in the debate about immigration."
The senator, whose family immigrated to the United States from Cuba, said, "It is a powerful political issue. 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," he said. "I've also seen people go in the other direction. Anyone who disagrees with their ideas on illegal immigration is anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. That's ridiculous. It's ridiculous. Everything is about politics. I've seen it firsthand."
As a result, Rubio said, few members of the Senate are interested in working on immigration reform with him because they have been "burned" by the issue. He had been drafting legislation to provide legal status for the children of illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. His efforts were sidelined a week ago when President Obama announced that his administration would stop deporting young illegal immigrants who had arrived in the United States before their 16th birthday, had no criminal history and pursued an education or military service.
"The reaction of many on the left was an immediate dismissal," Rubio said of his proposal. "I saw people on the left saying that I was proposing a new three-fifths compromise, harkening back to the days when a slave was only three-fifths of a person. I was accused of supporting apartheid."
It was different, he said, when Obama achieved essentially the same goals through executive action. "Now it's the greatest idea in the world. I don't care who gets the credit, I don't, but it exposes the fact that this issue is all about politics for some people," he said.
Still, he could not resist a few partisan swipes at the expense of Obama, who was scheduled to address the conference Friday afternoon, two hours after Rubio.
"I was tempted to come here today and rip open the policies of the administration and I know in a few moments you'll hear from the president. I was tempted to come here and tell you 'Hey, he hasn't been here in three years, what a coincidence. It's an election year.'"
Rubio's speech, like one delivered by Romney at the NALEO conference on Thursday, received moderate but not enthusiastic applause. Still, he seemed to have a deeper connection with the audience, perhaps as a result of beginning his speech with a few paragraphs of Spanish praising the group and thanking them for holding their conference in Florida. Rubio also recounted the story of his grandfather, who came to the United States for a second time on a once-legal immigrant visa that had expired after he returned to Cuba for more than a year. Despite a deportation order, he was ultimately allowed to stay.