MUSCATINE, Iowa — Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio said Friday that if he is elected president, he will not look to deport 12 million people in the U.S. illegally, and will instead propose solutions to accommodate those who have no criminal record.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rubio, campaigning in Iowa ahead of the state's leadoff presidential caucuses, said that the realistic approach to America's problems with illegal immigration is to round up only criminals, while finding ways to accommodate the rest.
"We're not going to round up and deport 12 million people," Rubio said, speaking on his campaign bus from eastern Iowa. "Criminals can't stay. Felons, people who are dangerous — they are not staying."
"But we're going to deal with the people that are here," he added.
Addressing reporters later on Friday, Rubio noted that the approach he sees as feasible is to administer a background check for individuals who have lived in the U.S. "for a defined period of time." If passed, provide authorization for anyone in the U.S. illegally to get a 10-year work permit.
"We're not going to force it down their throat," he said in the interview, later remarking to journalists: "You have to learn English. You have to pay a huge fine. You have to start paying taxes. You get a work permit. And that's what you'll have for at least 10 years. That's my idea."
Immigration has become a critical issue for Florida's freshman senator, who co-wrote a lengthy 2013 immigration bill that detailed a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. The legislation passed in the Senate on a bipartisan vote but ended up dying in the House. Rubio has since distanced himself from the sweeping bill, saying he wants to secure the border before dealing with the millions of people living in the U.S. illegally.
At the Fox News GOP debate Thursday, Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush squared off over immigration policy. Rubio said he never supported a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally. Former Gov. Jeb Bush asserted that Rubio did. Rubio was challenged to defend his past statements as a candidate for Senate where he opposed "blanket amnesty," but then went on to lead a bipartisan Senate group that would have allowed people to seek citizenship after a series of other requirements.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Rubio explained that "blanket amnesty" means "anyone here would be granted legalization or citizenship" and that the American people should decide what criteria should determine who can and cannot stay.
Accusations of flip-flopping ensued throughout Thursday's debate and into Friday.
In his closing argument to Iowa voters, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz cast himself as the only true conservative who can be trusted to keep his word, especially on immigration.
At a restaurant in Ringsted, Iowa, Cruz drew sharp contrasts between Rubio and national front-runner Donald Trump.
Cruz, fighting to retake his December lead in Iowa, took a swipe at Rubio, saying he campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 2010 by opposing amnesty for immigrants living in the country illegally, but then flipped his position after being elected.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose presidential campaign rests largely on how well he does in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, charged both Rubio and Cruz with both changing their positions on immigration.
"Neither of them will admit it," Christie said during an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
"America needs a Washington-to-English dictionary so they can understand what these people are talking about," Christie said. "Sen. Rubio did not tell the truth on that stage."
Scott Bauer contributed from Ringsted, Iowa