Exclusive Interview: Marco Rubio Challenges His Own Party on Latino Outreach

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Peter Hapak for TIME

Republican Marco Rubio of Florida is photographed Oct. 5, 2010, just under a month before winning his seat in the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 2 election.

In an interview for the upcoming cover story in TIME, Republican Senator Marco Rubio says he wants his party to adopt a new tone to appeal to Latino voters. Excerpts of that conversation follow.

On why Republicans need to overhaul their attitude toward immigration.

I’m always trying to remind my colleagues that if they lived in Mexico or anywhere in Latin America and their kids were hungry—every night went to sleep hungry—and your country provided no opportunity for you to feed them, you’re telling me that there’s nothing you wouldn’t do to feed them? You’re telling me you wouldn’t go anywhere there was a job so you could send money to them? I think the vast majority of people who enter this country illegally and legally do so because they’re looking for a better life, more opportunity for their kids. And I think we need to recognize that. I think we need to understand that many of them are doing what many of us would do if we were in the same position. That doesn’t excuse it. That doesn’t mean you legalize it. That doesn’t mean you overlook it, but I do think it puts a human element to it.

On what the Republican party has to offer Latino Americans.

I think the free enterprise systems speaks to their economic hopes and dreams. I think our defense of traditional family values speaks to their concerns that by coming to this country they found prosperity, and in the process lost their soul. Some families are worried about the fact that they brought their children here and their children are better off in every measurable economic way, and yet maybe the culture threatens the unity of the family, and the strengths of the family that they once had in their home country, and they wish they could have both. And I think the Republican party has a lot to offer. I think Conservatism has a lot to offer Hispanics – Americans of Hispanic descent. And I do look forward to making that case to them in Spanish. I do look forward to making that case to them without the filter of people telling them what we believe.

On the need for a more positive GOP message on immigration.

What’s the Republican legal-­immigration plan? And that’s a problem, when all they hear from you is what you’re against and not what you’re for. The Republican Party has to become the pro–legal immigration party. It has to be a party that puts out two things: a common­sense, compassionate yet law-based response to people that are here without documents, and a robust legal-­immigration system that ­emphasizes border security, worker security and an workable visa program. We have to have a proactive policy in that regard, and we haven’t.

On the future of his party unless it changes.

Ultimately there is, in my opinion, hundreds of thousands of conservatives and potential conservatives all across this country that will never become conservatives because they somehow feel that the party where the conservative movement is housed doesn’t want them. And that’s wrong, because that’s not true.

On Democrats’ inaction.

Here’s the bottom line: they do not want to fix the legal-immigration problem. They want this issue around to use for their campaigns. They’re just waiting for the right time to pop these issues out because they want to use them for political gain. It’s the reason why Senator Reid, you know, pushed the DREAM Act at the edge of the November elections in 2010—­because he wanted to use it as an electoral issue.

On why he opposed the DREAM Act, which would have given high-achieving young immigrants a path to citizenship.

I think for the path to citizenship, the support is not there. I think for the path to legalization there can be a conversation. I think most people would say that’s not amnesty, but it has to be structured in the right way. Then the other thing that I would say that’s wrong with the DREAM Act is it provides for chain migration, which is something people feel strongly about. It can’t be used as an anchor to let as many as 3 million people come into the country.

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