Sen. Marco Rubio , R-Fla., wants his party to take a more compassionate approach to the issue of immigration. And he wants to start by changing the immigration laws to allow children of illegal immigrants with a clean record to stay in the United States legally.
"We are trying to help real children, real kids who find themselves in an unfortunate circumstance not of their doing, not of their fault," Rubio told reporters in an off-camera briefing. "I think we have an obligation to do that."
It's a move that thrusts Rubio into the middle of the divisive debate over immigration and could pit him against many in his own party. But Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, said his views are a reflection of his personal experience.
"Here's the bottom line: I have thousands of kids in my state who fall under this circumstance," Rubio said. "I know people who are under this circumstance. I live Miami, where you can't go four steps without walking into somebody who is an immigrant. My wife's family is from Colombia, the guys around the corner are from Nicaragua; the folks down the street are from Peru. You go to the grocery store, and everybody is from somewhere else."
Rubio added: "This is the reality of the community I live in, the state that I represent and the life that I have lived for 41 years. These are not theoretical concepts for me. This is the world I have seen."
Democrats have repeatedly tried to pass a bill to help exactly the people Rubio wants to help: the so-called DREAM Act , which would allow high school graduates "of good moral character" who were brought to the US as children to stay in the United States legally. Mitt Romney has said he would veto the DREAM Act because he says it rewards illegal immigration.
Rubio says he is working on an alternative to the DREAM Act that he hopes Romney will be able to support.
"Mitt Romney is the leader of the Republican party now and our hope would be to come up with something he can be supportive of," Rubio said.
Rubio says the bill he is drafting would be different than the DREAM Act because it would not provide a special path to American citizenship. But like the Democratic bill, Rubio's proposal would allow those who qualify to stay in the United States to work or attend college by giving them a non-immigrant visa.
In addition to opposing the DREAM Act during the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney said that any illegal immigrants who want to become American citizens would have to return to their own countries to apply for U.S. citizenship.
"I would veto the DREAM Act if provisions included in that act to say that people who are here illegally, if they go to school here long enough, get a degree here that they can become permanent residents," Romney said during a debate in South Carolina on January 16. "I think we have to follow the law and insist those who come here illegally, ultimately return home, apply, and get in line with everyone else."
But Rubio says people who were brought to the U.S. as young children should not necessarily be forced to return to their native countries to apply for citizenship in the U.S.
"I think the issue of kids who are brought to this country and are here in an undocumented status through no fault of their own, who are high achievers and have much to offer us in the future - I think there is broad bi-partisan support for the notion that those kids are in a different category than the vast majority who are here in an undocumented status," Rubio said.
Rubio says the Republican party cannot be known simply as the anti-illegal-immigration party.
"We are the pro-legal immigration party," Rubio said. "We believe immigration is an important part of our heritage and an important part of our future, but we cannot be the only country in the world that does not have immigration laws, we can't be the only country in the world that does not enforce its immigration laws."