Immigration was front and center Thursday night at the final Republican debate before the Super Tuesday contests next week, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio took the gloves off when going after front-runner Donald Trump on the issue.
In the night’s first of many heated exchanges, Rubio accused Trump of shifting positions on deportation, hiring people from other countries to take away jobs from Americans in his real estate projects and being fined for worker violations.
“If you’re going to claim that you’re the only one who lifted [the immigration issue] into this campaign, then you ought to acknowledge that, for example, you’re the only person on this stage who has ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally,” Rubio said to Trump.
Trump shot back: “I’m the only one on the stage that’s hired people. You haven’t hired anybody."
Rubio answered, “You’ve hired a thousand people from another country.”
Joining in, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz criticized Trump for suggesting he alone had "discovered the issue of illegal immigration."
Cruz said that while the Texas senator was running for U.S. Senate and promising to lead the fight against what he calls amnesty, Trump was busy donating cash to a group of lawmakers backing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Cruz said, "Where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice."
He added, "When you're funding open-border politicians, you shouldn't be surprised when they fight for open borders."
In striking back at Cruz, Trump took a more personal tack, touting his own ability to get along with others and adding, "You get along with nobody."
The New York billionaire pointed out the Texas senator doesn't have the backing of any Senate colleagues "even though you work with these people. You should be ashamed of yourself."
Cruz responded, "If you want to be liked in Washington, that's not a good attribute for being president."
Both Rubio and Cruz bashed Trump for having to pay a $1 million fine for hiring undocumented workers in a real estate project.
The debate in Houston was the first time this campaign season in which either of Trump’s two main challengers openly attacked the real estate mogul, but the two lawmakers were not immune from criticism from the debate moderators.
Telemundo’s María Celeste Arrarás asked Cruz and Rubio whether they have been missing an opportunity to embrace their Latino heritage by fighting over who is tougher on illegal immigration. Both are Cuban-American.
Cruz is the first Latino candidate to ever win a presidential contest - the Iowa caucuses earlier this month. He agreed that his candidacy "really is an embodiment" of opportunities for immigrants in the U.S.
He added that there is a misperception that all Latinos must be liberals.
"I am fighting so that everyone who is struggling in the Hispanic community and beyond will have a fair and even shake at the American dream," he said.
Rubio answered by saying that President Barack Obama's policies are not working for Latinos. "We have to move past this sentiment that the Hispanic community only cares about immigration," he said.
Rubio pointed to Carson, an African-American, as well as himself and Cruz and said, "I do think it's amazing. We are the party of diversity, not the Democratic Party."
Rubio also defended his vow to cancel a program that protects the children of people living in the country illegally from deportation.
Addressing comments in made in Spanish in an interview with Telemundo, Rubio said he never changed his position on what's known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
He said it has to "end at some point," but added that it "wouldn't be fair" to cancel the program immediately.
At the debate, Rubio said that people already enrolled in the program shouldn't be allowed to renew their application, and it should be closed to new applicants.
If elected president, he vowed to eliminate the program, calling its institution by Obama through executive action, "unconstitutional."
Thursday's debate, with CNN and Telemundo as partners, is the only one of the season aimed at a Spanish-speaking as well as English-speaking audience, so it made sense that immigration would be a much-discussed issue.
The debate's location in Houston gave a nod to the primacy of Texas in next week's Super Tuesday round of voting. There are 595 delegates at stake in GOP contests Tuesday in 11 different states, including 155 in Texas.
The debate audience included former President George H.W. Bush, 91, and his wife, Barbara — who missed out on the chance to see their son Jeb take part. He dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the South Carolina primary.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.