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Rubio: Some want immigration issue unresolved to win elections

Potential vice presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that “both my head and my heart tell me that today perhaps we are as close as we’ve ever been to a critical turning point in the debate about immigration.”

He called for a balanced approach to reforming the process of legally immigrating to the United States to reduce the waiting time for those who have followed the established process for becoming legal permanent residents.

Edward Linsmier / Getty Images

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., addresses the audience at the 29th annual NALEO conference June 22, 2012 in Orlando, Florida.

But the Florida Republican said since joining the Senate in 2011 “I’ve come to realize … how truly complicated this issue has become.”

He said that there were those on both the Democratic and GOP sides who want the immigration issue to not get solved because then they can keep exploiting it for electoral gain.

“As long as this issue of immigration is a political ping-pong that each side uses to win elections and influence votes, I’m telling you it won’t get solved,” he said. Too many people “want it to stay unresolved; it’s easier to influence elections … .”

Rubio complained that when he first floated the idea of providing a way for younger illegal immigrants who’d been brought to United States by their parents to remain, “the reaction of many on the left was an immediate dismissal. I saw people on the left saying that I was proposing a new three-fifths compromise, harkening back of the days when a slave was only three-fifths of a person. I was accused of supporting apartheid.”

Related: Rubio: Obama immigration move hurts effort to pass long-term solution

But then he said when President Barack Obama ordered a very similar policy last week, suddenly Rubio’s critics say “it’s the greatest idea in the world.”

He added, “I don’t care who gets the credit … but it exposes the fact that this issue is all about politics for some people.”

He also got in a slam at Obama by saying, “I was tempted to come here and tell you 'Hey, he hasn’t been here (to the NALEO annual conference) in three years, what a coincidence: it's an election year … but that's not the direction I want to go with my speech. Because if I did, if that’s what I came here to talk to you about, then I would be doing the exact same thing that I just criticized.”

Explaining why simply allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States would create a problem of equity, Rubio said there were probably 50 million – many in Latin America – who are waiting to immigrate to the United States legally.

His Florida constituents often come to his Senate office and tell him “My mom has been waiting; my sister has been waiting for 15 years. They paid the fees they’ve waited their turn.”

Rubio asked, “What’s our message to them? ‘Come illegally; it is cheaper and quicker’? That’s not an answer either.”

He also criticized those who he said seem to think there is a right to immigrate illegally to the United States. 

“The truth is: there is no right to illegally immigrate to the United States. And when we talk about illegal immigration, it’s not about demanding rights; it’s about appealing to the compassion of the most compassionate nation in the history of the world.”

But he won some applause from his audience when he sounded empathetic for the illegal immigrants who come to the United States in search of a more prosperous life.

“These are people that are doing what virtually any of us would do if our children were hungry, if their countries were dangerous, if they had no hope for their future,” he said. “Who among us would not do whatever it took to feed our children and to provide for them a better future?”

NBC's Andrew Rafferty contributed to this story.