By Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Senator Marco Rubio on Thursday sought his fellow conservatives' support for a sweeping immigration bill by arguing that doing nothing is tantamount to "amnesty" for the 11 million people who are living in the United States illegally.
Trying to turn the tables on Republican opponents of the overhaul who say it would grant amnesty to law-breakers, Rubio said deportation of all the 11 million, which some conservatives favor, would never happen.
"We all wish we didn't have this problem, but we do and we have to fix it. Because leaving things the way they are, that's the real amnesty," Rubio said at a news conference.
Rubio spoke the day before the Senate Judiciary Committee starts to examine the immigration bill crafted by Rubio and seven other Republican and Democratic senators.
Rubio, a popular conservative already considered a contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, had been pushing for immigration reform even before the eight senators unveiled their legislation this week.
The Florida senator has been stressing the economic benefits of immigration reform and has been careful not to say the bill creates a special path to citizenship - a non-starter for many conservatives.
The bill requires tougher security at the southern border with Mexico before illegal immigrants are given a chance to apply for citizenship. It also establishes a new program to bring in unskilled foreign laborers and increases the number of work visas for high- and low-skilled workers.
Rubio also took his appeal for the bill to influential conservative Rush Limbaugh's radio talk show on Thursday.
Some Republican lawmakers "have stated pretty strong opposition" to the path to citizenship, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who is part of the bipartisan Senate group, told reporters after the news conference.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who has been a vocal opponent of the plan, warned on Thursday that the bill would hurt U.S. workers and increase federal deficits as millions of undocumented residents eventually gain citizenship and become eligible for government benefits.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is to start working intensively on the bill in May with a goal of making changes before June.
The measure has a chance of passing the Senate, where Democrats control 55 of the 100 seats. However, its prospects are far less rosy in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where members of Rubio's party have started to coalesce around the idea of granting the illegal immigrants legal status but not citizenship.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Sam Youngman; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)