Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Human rights groups sound alarm over Interpol election MORE (R-Fla.) told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that he's learned he was wrong on his approach to immigration reform.
Rubio, a onetime Tea Party favorite whose support for a comprehensive immigration reform package hurt him with the GOP base, told the conservative crowd that he now understands U.S. borders must be secured before anything else can be done.
"It wasn't very popular, I don't know if you know that from some of the folks here," Rubio said with a smile, earning laughs from the crowd, when asked about his earlier support for the bill by Fox News host Sean Hannity.
"You have 10 or 12 million people in this country, many of whom have lived here for longer than a decade, have not otherwise violated our law other than immigration laws, I get all that," Rubio said. "But what I've learned is you can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know, not just believe but it's proven to them that future illegal immigration will be controlled."
That tone is a big change from his support for the 2013 bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that badly wounded him with the GOP base, though it's a return to the views he held before he joined the bipartisan group.
Rubio said recent border issues had proven his earlier approach was wrong, calling a border security first approach "the only way forward."
"You can't just tell people you're going to secure the border, we're going to do E-Verify. You have to do that, they have to see it, they have to see it working, and then they're going to have a reasonable conversation with you about the other parts, but they're not going to even want to talk about that until that's done first. And what's happened over the last two years, the migratory crisis this summer, the two executive orders, that's even more true than it's been."
Rubio's shift on the issue is the latest sign he's leaning toward a presidential run, as he looks to repair relations with conservatives. It's also a marked split from his former mentor and likely opponent, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who has doubled down on his support for immigration reform.
Rubio's speech itself focused on his two core messages: American exceptionalism and a need to help the working class get ahead — with Rubio's personal anecdotes getting the strongest response.
"For me America isn't just a country, it's a place that literally changed the history of my family," he said as the audience nodded along attentively. "America doesn't owe me anything, but I have a debt to America that I will never be able to repay."
Rubio kept his speech very short, using just over six minutes of the 12 he was allowed and leaving the rest for questions. The CPAC hall was mostly full, despite his early speaking time, though the final few rows filled in with bleary-eyed college students a few minutes after he took the stage.
The audience's response was a bit muted compared to the one some Thursday speakers received. That's likely more because Rubio had less red-meat applause lines built into the speech and because the crowd was dragging a bit after a likely party-filled night.
Hannity joked about how many in attendance "weren't feeling well this morning, you were up late drinking," earning laughs from the crowd and pointing out he had his own water bottle with him.
Rubio also got strong cheers for slamming Democrats' foreign policy.
"Because of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy, our allies no longer trust us, and our enemies no longer fear us," he said to applause before ripping "a foreign policy that treats the ayatollah of Iran with more respect than the prime minister of Israel."
— This post was updated at 9:45 a.m.