GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio said Wednesday in New Hampshire the deportation deferral program that has allowed hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to stay and work in the country has to end with or without immigration reform legislation.
Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, made the comment about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, program in response to a reporter's question while campaigning in the early primary state.
"DACA is going to end and the ideal way for it to end is that it's replaced by a reform system that creates an alternative," Rubio said while in Manchester, N.H. "But if it doesn't, it will end. It cannot be the permanent policy of the United States."
Video of Rubio's comment was posted online by American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal Super PAC that does opposition research and messaging on Republicans.
Critics said Rubio's position on ending DACA had been unclear but that he made clear Wednesday he would end it.
Lynn Tramonte of America's Voice, a group that advocates for immigrants, attributed Rubio's latest comment to his GOP rival Donald Trump, who has been blasting Rubio on immigration as Rubio has seen a rise in the polls.
"This is just another example of the Trump effect: where GOP presidential candidates respond to Donald Trump's attacks on immigration by tacking hard right," Tramonte said in a statement.
DACA dates was authorized in 2012 by President Barack Obama's administration to help young immigrants who arrived or stayed in the U.S. without legal permission.
Many shielded from deportation through the program were brought to the U.S. by parents as very young children and have grown up in the United States. They often are referred to as Dreamers, after legislation first proposed more than a decade ago that would have put them on a road to citizenship but that Congress has never approved.
More than 700,000 young immigrants have DACA, which they must renew, and are allowed to work. The latest DACA deferrals expire in 2017.
"Let's be clear, by taking away my DACA, Sen. Rubio wants to deport me, and hundreds of thousands of immigrant youth," Jassiel Perez, a DACA recipient with the immigrant activist group United We Dream.
"This is a personal attack and is further proof that he does not stand with the immigrant community," Perez said in a statement.
Rubio had previously said DACA would have to end at some point, drawing criticism from conservatives who said he would continue "Obama's executive amnesty."
The interview in which he made the comment resurfaced Monday online on Breitbart.
Rubio was a member of the "Gang of Eight," made up of eight senators who crafted a bipartisan immigration reform bill that the Senate approved in 2013.
But Rubio later abandoned support for the bill and said immigration should be dealt with in a piecemeal manner and border security should be the priority.
House Republicans refused to consider the bill or to pass their own and go to conference on immigration legislation.