HOUSTON, Texas — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz started Thursday's debate on offense — pointing to a report that businessman and front-runner Donald Trump had hired Polish immigrants to build Trump Tower and to work at a club in Florida.
Rubio took the first swing, responding to Trump's argument that he was the one who made immigration an issue in the GOP race.
"Well, the truth is, though, that a lot of these [immigration] positions that he's now taking are new to him," the Florida senator said. "In 2011, he talked about the need for a pathway to citizenship. In 2012, Donald criticized Mitt Romney, saying that Mitt lost his election because of self-deportation.
Then he pivoted to a New York Times report today that pointed out that Trump heavily favored immigrant workers when hiring for several of his business ventures.
"Even today, we saw a report in one of the newspapers that Donald, you've hired a significant number of people from other countries to take jobs that Americans could have filled," Rubio said. "My mom and dad -- my mom was a maid at a hotel, and instead of hiring an American like her, you have brought in over a thousand people from all over the world to fill those jobs instead."
Trump responded that he had no choice but to hire immigrants in Florida because U.S. citizen workers were scarce during certain seasons.
"As far as the people that I've hired in various parts of Florida during the absolute prime season, like Palm Beach and other locations, you could not get help," he said. "It's the up season. People didn't want to have part-time jobs. There were part-time jobs, very seasonal, 90-day jobs, 120-day jobs."
But Rubio pushed back, arguing that the Times report included quotes from citizens who would gladly have taken jobs from Trump in Florida.
"You're the only person on this stage that has ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally," Rubio pushed.
Trump cut in: "No, no, I'm the only one on the stage that's hired people. You haven't hired anybody."
They went back and forth — Trump knocked Rubio for having "nothing but problems" with credit cards, and added: "You haven't hired one person, you liar."
Rubio reiterated that Trump hired workers from Poland and had to pay a million dollars in a judgment as a result.
"That's a fact," he said. "People can look it up. I'm sure people are Googling it right now. Look it up: Trump Polish workers."
When Cruz was brought in on the immigration question, he piled on.
"I really find it amazing that Donald believes that he is the one who discovered the issue of illegal immigration," the Texas senator said. "I can tell you, when I ran for Senate here in the state of Texas, I ran promising to lead the fight against amnesty, promising to fight to build a wall."
Then he went back to the Polish immigrant issue: "By the way, Marco is exactly right that a federal court found Donald guilty of being part of a conspiracy to hire people illegally and entered a $1 million judgment against him."
Cruz also hammered home the idea that Trump's hardline stance on immigration is newfound.
"He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats. Anyone who really cared about illegal immigration wouldn't be hiring illegal immigrants," he said. "Anyone who really cared about illegal immigration wouldn't be funding Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi; wouldn't be funding the Gang of Eight."
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