WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Wednesday that he wants to tackle small parts of immigration overhaul before addressing how to create a pathway to legal status for most illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Rather than working on one comprehensive bill, Congress should pass a series of bills that help foreign entrepreneurs, technology workers, agricultural workers and those who were brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children, Mr. Rubio said while speaking at a public event sponsored by the news organization Politico.
"Portions of immigration reform can be dealt with quicker than others," he said.
Since a surge in Latino voter turnout tipped the election in President Barack Obama's favor, a chorus of Republican strategists have called for the party to rethink its approach to immigration.
The 41-year-old first-term senator from Florida is widely seen as a future presidential contender and is expected to be an important Republican voice in the debate on how to reform the immigration system early next year.
Mr. Rubio's insistence that lawmakers start with smaller pieces of immigration overhaul rather than hold out for a single compromise puts him at odds with Senate Democrats and White House officials who have said that any immigration bill next year will have to create a pathway to legal status for most illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
Mr. Obama promised in his first news conference after the election to turn to immigration reform "very soon" after his inauguration.
Mr. Rubio said he was optimistic about getting something done and put the chances of ultimately creating a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants in the next two years at more than 50 percent.
"This will take a while. There is not a magic solution to this. I believe we have to do it and I believe we can do it," he said.
Mr. Rubio, the Republican Party's most prominent Hispanic politician, said there is "a lot of consensus" on the concept of immigration reform.
"But the details of immigration reform have to be examined," he said.
Mr. Rubio said that adding tighter requirements for employers who hire immigrants and tougher border security should also be passed before offering pathway to legal status for the large number of undocumented.
"It is a lot easier if you have dealt with those other issues," he said.
Mr. Rubio said the party needs to change the way it talks about immigrants.
"We're not talking about plagues of locusts. We're talking about people," he said.
"Unfortunately I think the Republican Party for many years allowed itself to be positioned as the anti-illegal immigration party," he said.
"What we really need to be is the pro-legal immigration party."
Mr. Rubio's comments come a day after former President George W. Bush told an audience in Dallas that new immigration legislation needed to be approached "with a benevolent spirit."
"Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas," said Mr. Bush. "They fill a critical gap in our labor market," he said, speaking at a policy conference on immigration and the economy at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
As president, Mr. Bush championed a failed effort to pass comprehensive immigration overhaul that would have created a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. unlawfully.
"America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Mr. Bush said.