By Cameron Joseph - 11/15/12 03:14 PM EST
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Thursday that the Republican Party needs to improve its message on illegal immigration in order to appeal to more Hispanic voters.
"It's really hard to get people to listen to you … if they think you want to deport their grandmother," he said. "You can be for legal immigration. You don't have to be for amnesty, but you also have to realize that these people are human beings."
Republicans have talked about immigration increasingly in the wake of last week's election, when President Obama overwhelmingly won Hispanic voters with 71 percent of the vote.
A rising star in the party, Rubio was mentioned as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney and is considered an early contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
He is headed to Iowa — an early caucus state — on Saturday for a birthday fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).
"My trip to Iowa has nothing to do with 2016," he said. "It has to do with Governor Branstad and I accepted that invitation when I fully expected Mitt Romney would be the next president of the United States and believed that in 2016 we'd be working for his reelection."
Speaking at a Washington Ideas Forum taking place at the Newseum, Rubio said the hardest part of immigration reform is fixing the system for future immigrants.
Rubio acknowledged that the question of whether to give the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. some form of legal standing is "politically charged" — many conservatives consider it some form of amnesty — but he noted the trickier issue is making sure any reforms that fix the legal immigration system also solve the "supply and demand problem" for employment-based future immigration.
"The reason 3 million people became 11 million people is … they didn't do a good job of fixing the immigration system going forward," Rubio said, referring to the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. when the 1986 immigration reforms passed.
Rubio said it was "critical" to fix and improve the legal immigration system going forward to make sure it does "not incentivize folks to do that in the future" in reference to illegal immigration.
He also said that moving forward on a law to help undocumented immigrants brought here as children was important because "time is of the essence for them" and said they're "more like refugees" than illegal immigrants.
"It's not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one," he said. "They're here through no fault of their own … it behooves us to find a permanent solution."
Rubio told The Hill on Tuesday he was hopeful a deal on immigration could be made next year.
— This story was updated at 11:54 p.m.