Rubio addresses the Hispanic Leadership Conference. (AP/Alan Diaz)
"For those of us who come from the conservative movement, we must admit that there are those among us who have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable, inexcusable," Rubio said at a conference for the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network. "We must admit, myself included, that sometimes we've been too slow in condemning that rhetoric."
Rubio, a Republican senator to Florida who is often floated as a potential vice presidential nominee for the party in 2012, was interrupted by two protesters raising awareness about the Dream Act, which would provide legal status for illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children and attend college or serve in the military. "Why don't you support undocumented immigrants? Please help us," one young man yelled, as members of the crowd booed.
Rubio shouted from the podium that he wanted the two young men to be able to stay and hear him out, as security at the event quickly escorted them away.
"These young people are very brave to be here today," he said. "They had the bravery and the courage to raise their voices."
Rubio has said he will stay neutral during the primary, though he intervened on Mitt Romney's behalf when Newt Gingrich ran radio ads calling Romney "anti-immigrant." Rubio said the ads were inflammatory, and the Gingrich campaign quickly announced it would pull them.
Rubio didn't specify which conservatives he thought were using harsh immigration rhetoric in his speech. In a Republican presidential debate in October in Las Vegas, Rick Perry and Romney used the word "illegals" 10 times to refer to illegal immigrants, which is considered a dehumanizing term by immigration advocates. Crossing the border without permission is a criminal offense, but simply being in the country without legal status is a civil violation. Some Republican strategists told the New York Times at the time they worried that the rhetoric would alienate the crucial Latino vote in the general election.
Gingrich and Romney, who both support a military-only version of the Dream Act, also addressed the conference on Friday. Gingrich said he supports a guest worker program, as well as letting communities decide if they want to provide legal status to some illegal immigrants who already have deep ties to the country.
Romney, meanwhile, again outlined his position that immigration rules should be enforced so tightly that illegal immigrants will be unable to find work and will choose to leave the country voluntarily.
"I call that -- or other people call that self deportation," Romney said, appearing to back off the phrase that he uttered Monday night.
One of his top backers in Florida, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, said Romney's use of "self-deportation" in the debate was "frankly, a bad choice of words."
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