Sen. Marco Rubio argued that the nation's immigration laws need to be overhauled and said that Hillary Clinton would be a flawed candidate for president.
"I just think she's a 20th century candidate," he said. "I think she does not offer an agenda for moving America forward in the 21st century, at least not up till now."
The Florida Republican made his comments in the second half of a two-part interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep on Tuesday. Rubio also said he will make a decision about whether to run for president himself sometime within the next few months.
Rubio's very early status as a presidential front-runner on the GOP side was damaged by his decision to co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last year but ended up dead on arrival in the House.
Rubio told Inskeep its political failure came about because his fellow senators did not heed his own warnings to impose border security measures strict enough to satisfy House Republicans.
Rubio said that for major legislation to pass "any time in the next decade," immigration problems will have to be tackled in steps: first, greater border security, then modernizing the legal immigration system. Only after those goals are accomplished will the country be able to decide "what to do with the 11 or 12 million human beings that are in this country illegally," he said.
Rubio expressed sympathy for the children now fleeing violence in Central America but said the U.S. cannot address the crisis on its own, calling on help from hemispheric partners.
"We are deeply compassionate," he said. "This country's always had a place for people who seek asylum from conditions, whether they be political or otherwise.
"The problem is, it has to be through a process," Rubio continued. "This nation — no nation — is capable of sustaining or absorbing mass migrations."
Rubio said that even the law regarding Cuban immigrants needs to be modernized in order to reflect changing times. He'd like to see more migrants granted legal status based on job skills, as opposed to giving preference more often to those who have family ties or who are seeking asylum.
"I fully recognize that's how my parents came in 1956, but the country and the economy is fundamentally different than it was 60 years ago," he said, "and our immigration laws have to reflect this."
His party has struggled to attract support from Hispanics, but Rubio said an immigration overhaul, while it might help the GOP open up a conversation with Hispanic voters, would not be a panacea.
"I never did it for politics," he said of his own involvement in crafting immigration legislation. "I don't see a political upside, in the immediate term, for sure."
In terms of his political opponents, Rubio said Hillary Clinton is "extremely vulnerable on her record.
"The truth of the matter is she was the secretary of state during an administration that has had virtually no successes on foreign policy," he said.
Rubio, who is 43, said his continuing career in public service is motivated by the nation being at a "generational, transformational crossroads." He dismissed Clinton as being on the wrong side of those particular tracks.
Rubio said he'd make up his mind about running for president by early 2015.
"There's a lot of work to be done if you're going to run for president, or if you're going to run for re-election in a state as big as Florida," Rubio said.
Rubio discussed economic opportunity and his preference for limited government in the first part of his Morning Edition interview on Monday.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Next we put some questions about immigration to Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He's a possible Republican presidential candidate. He's also the son of Cuban immigrants.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We heard Rubio yesterday addressing the gap between rich and poor. Today, we talk about another tough issue which is especially tough for him.
MONTAGNE: Last year, Rubio joined seven other senators drafting a bipartisan immigration bill. He was criticized by his Tea Party supporters. It was then felt that he was distancing himself from the bill. It later stalled in the house.
INSKEEP: Now the immigration debate is dominated by news that thousands of children fleeing Central America are crossing the border, and that is where our discussion of this subject began.
We've had people on our air who've been to Honduras, who've looked at the conditions there and have argued these kids are not immigrants. They're not migrants. They are refugees from a crisis situation. Do you believe they're refugees?
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: I think some of them definitely are fleeing violence and - in particularly - for example, in rural areas of Honduras are among the most dangerous places in this hemisphere, if not the world. And we are deeply compassionate about that. And this country has always had a place for people that seek asylum from conditions whether they be political or otherwise. The problem is it has to be through a process.
And no nation - this nation - no nation is capable of sustaining or absorbing mass migrations. And the truth be told is that part of this is of our own doing.
In essence, I believe that decisions that were made over the last few years have created the specter in these countries where transnational organizations are going to people and saying that there's this special law in America that's going to allow you to stay, the reality that about 70 percent of children that make it to this country on their own or in family units are staying. They are being released into society, and they never reappear. And we haven't done enough to secure elements of our border that remain insecure. And this is just not a sustainable situation. It's not good for anyone. This needs to be addressed.
INSKEEP: You mentioned asylum. Of course you can apply for asylum. But as you know very well, it's hard to get. Should the system be changed to make it easier for people like these young people to arrive?
RUBIO: There will always be a place in this country for people that seek asylum. I'm not sure that we live in an era anymore where the country can absorb 60,000 people via asylum or any other process. A million...
INSKEEP: Meaning the answer is no?
RUBIO: Sure. I mean, a million - and I think it would behoove us to do what we can to help these countries improve conditions in their own country. But I would say that there are other members of the hemisphere that need to step forward and provide that as well. I mean, I think Mexico then should play role, and Canada should play a role, and other countries should play a role. It cannot all be on the shoulder of this country. I mean, there are things we can do, and there are things we cannot.
INSKEEP: Is there a moral difference - not a legal difference - but a moral difference between the young people fleeing from Honduras and Cubans who come to the United States and are admitted?
RUBIO: Well, again - and that's a complicated situation. I would argue that even the Cuban migration situation itself has evolved over the years. I mean, the early migration was completely driven by a Communist takeover of the island. Since then, a lot of the migration is driven by a desire to be reunited with family and better economic opportunities. And it's why I've argued, myself, openly, that the Cuban Adjustment Act is something that should be reevaluated in regards to that.
I also think our country has changed since then. There was a time where we had more liberal immigration policies because the nation could absorb it. I think now, given the economic realities that we face as a country, the very nature of our immigration process needs to be modernized and reexamined away from a primarily family-based system to a merit-based system.
And within a merit-based system of immigration, you are going to have less asylum. You are going to have less family reunification migrants coming. And I fully recognize that's how my parents came in 1956, but the country and our economy is fundamentally different than it was back 60 years ago. And our immigration laws have to reflect that.
INSKEEP: You've added some nuance which I appreciate, but let me come back to that fundamental question. Is there a moral difference between Hondurans and Cubans?
RUBIO: I wouldn't make the case that there's a moral difference. There's different circumstances. The Cubans that came, came fleeing Communism in the height of the Cold War. These children are here fleeing violence and gang violence and criminality, but that exists in dozens of countries on the planet. And the U.S. cannot absorb every single person on the planet who comes fleeing that.
INSKEEP: Under what scenario, if any, can you see immigration reform passing before 2016?
RUBIO: I think there's only one scenario in which it passes at any point in the next decade, and that is a three-step process that first involves border security. People have to believe that this problem is under control and not getting worse and in fact is getting better. If that can be achieved, I think we can move to step two, which is modernizing our legal immigration system. And then the third step in this process, after you've done those two, is addressing what to do with 11 or 12 million human beings that are in this country illegally.
That, I think, is the only process that has a chance, and it would have to happen in those three steps. I've been through this now. I was involved in the effort. I warned, during that effort, that I didn't think it did enough on this first element - the security front. I was proven unfortunately right by the fact that it didn't move in the House. And I now believe that it's very clear that if we are ever going to move on immigration reform, it will have to be in that sequence.
INSKEEP: Without immigration reform, do Republicans lose the White House in 2016?
RUBIO: I've never - you know, that's an interesting question because I've never analyzed it from the perspective of politics. I think people who say, you pass immigration reform, Republicans will see a marked improvement among Hispanic voters, exaggerated.
I never did it for politics. I don't see a political upside in the immediate term for sure. Will addressing that issue create the opportunity for us to talk about other things with Americans who care about this issue?
INSKEEP: That's my question.
RUBIO: I think it would be helpful in that regard, but I don't think that's the reason to do it. And I've never told my colleagues to do it for that reason.
INSKEEP: So what would you have the Republican Party do to keep from losing 70 percent of the Latino vote?
RUBIO: Well, again, I don't analyze it that way. I analyze it - the vast majority or - significant portion of Americans of Hispanic dissent who vote happen to be working-class people who are desperate to not only achieve the American dream, but leave their kids better off than themselves. And they are going to vote for the political movement and the candidates who they believe understand what they are facing and have real ideas to help them.
INSKEEP: How strong a candidate do you think Hillary Clinton is...
RUBIO: Well, I...
INSKEEP: ...Assuming she runs?
RUBIO: Yeah, so I would say a couple things about it - first is, clearly she's a front-runner for the Democratic nomination. I think she'd have the support of many on Wall Street, many of the big donors around the country.
I think she's extremely vulnerable on her record. The truth of the matter is she was the secretary of state during an administration that has had virtually no major successes on foreign policy. In fact, their failures on foreign policy are stark, and we're reminded of them every single day. And she'll have to answer for that.
And the other is, I just think she's a 20th century candidate. I think she does not offer an agenda for moving America forward in the 21st century - at least not up to now.
INSKEEP: What would prompt you to decide to run?
RUBIO: Well, for me - first I need to make the decision about - and I think that's an issue people don't - a question people in politics don't ask themselves enough. And that is, do you want to continue to serve in politics? And why I'm inclined to continue to serve is because of this agenda I've outlined for you, this belief that America is at this generational, transformational crossroads between the 20th and 21st century.
And then the question I have to answer myself is, where am I best positioned to further that agenda? Is it in the U.S. Senate, especially if there's a Republican majority? Or is it as a candidate and ultimately as president of the United States? That's a decision I'll have to make here in the next few months.
INSKEEP: In the next few months?
RUBIO: Sure, before the end of this year or early part of next year. There's a lot of work to be done if you're going to run for president or if you're going to run for reelection in a state as big as Florida.
INSKEEP: Senator Rubio, thank you very much.
RUBIO: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Florida's Marco Rubio spoke at the Capitol in his office there. And you can hear both parts of our conversation at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.