Rubio in Iowa: Immigration Reform 'Good for the Country'

By Susan Jones | August 4, 2014 | 6:09 AM EDT

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference on June 19, 2014 in Washington, D.C. ( Starr)

( - "I continue to believe that we have to reform our immigration laws. I think that's good for the country. I wouldn't say that because of politics," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The possible presidential hopeful was speaking to "Fox News Sunday" -- from Iowa.

Although he favors immigration reform, Rubio says he's changed his mind about doing it all at once, in one bill -- even though he was one of 14 Republican senators who voted for such a bill one year ago.

"I've been dealing with this issue for the better part of 18 months. And I know now more than ever if you're in favor of immigration reform, then we have to re-evaluate the process by which we achieve it.

"And in my mind, given everything that's going on now, especially the only way we're going to make progress on this issue is to first deal with illegal immigration, secure the border, win people's confidence that in reality this problem is under control.

"Step two would be to modernize our legal immigration laws, geared more towards a merit based system like what Canada has as opposed to the family based system. And then, step three, after you do those two things, would be to address in a reasonable yet responsible way the fact that we have 9 million, 10 million, 11 million people living in this country illegally."

Rubio said the immigration debate centers not on what to do -- but on "how to do it."

"And I'm just telling you, we will never have the votes necessary to pass (in) one bill all of those things. It just won't happen.

"So, our choices are: we can either continue to beat our head against the wall and try a process for which we'll never have the support, or we can try another way that perhaps we can make progress on. So, what I'm just talking about here is trying to figure out a different way of doing it where we can actually achieve it, but it's got to be a process that has a chance to pass."

Rubio said any unilateral move by President Obama to expand his deferred deportation program to millions more illegal aliens would be "one step forward but three steps back."

"It would further drive this narrative that this is a president not interested in enforcing our laws, which right now is the single greatest single impediment to moving forward."

President Obama said on Friday that while lawmakers take their five-week vaction, "I'm going to have to make some tough choices to meet the challenge, with or without Congress."

The Senate immigration bill supported by Rubio included border enforcement as well as a path to citizenship. And after it passed, his poll numbers sank.

"Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace asked Rubio if concern for his poll numbers prompted him to change his mind about passing comprehensive immigration reform in one bill: "Is that why you have now switched and said we have to do this in stages, with enforcement first and any dealing with legality or citizenship for the immigrants way down the line and afterwards?"

"Yes," Rubio replied. "When I got involved the issue, I knew how difficult it was politically. But I ran for office to make a difference, and this is an issue that ...I believe I could be a part of making a difference in, I believe it's one the country needs to confront and solve for the good of America. I don't know what it means politically for me or anybody else, but that's not my job. I didn't get elected to maintain good poll numbers nationally. I got elected to address and solve problems."

Rubio said immigration reform is "separate" from the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. He recommended three steps to deal with the "mass migration" of unaccompanied minors:

"Number one is we have to treat them the way Americans always treat people in the most compassionate way possible. Number two, these children eventually will have to return -- most of them, anyways, to their country, because otherwise, you are encouraging more people to undertake that very dangerous journey. And the third thing is you have to address these ambiguities in our law that are creating the circumstances that are allowing these trafficking groups to convince people to pay them $8,000 or $10,000 to bring them here."

Rubio said the "root causes" of the border crisis are twofold -- a combination of "violence and instability and poverty in central America" as well as "ambiguities in our laws" that "began in 2008 with a very well-intentioned law to prevent human trafficking and address it, and then it continued in 2012 with the president's deferred action program.

"And the combination of those two things have allowed trafficking groups to go into these communities in Central America and tell people that America has some special law that's going to allow them to come here and stay, and that's serving as a lure that's driving this crisis."