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GOP event highlights party feuds and clashing immigration stances

Gather 13 Republican presidential candidates at a cattle call and the party's big differences — and feuds — arise in stark display.

ORLANDO, Florida — Gather 13 Republican presidential candidates at a cattle call and the party's big differences — and feuds — arise in stark display. That was the case at the 2015 Sunshine Summit here. 

As the candidates appealed to conservative Floridians with their standard stump speeches, it was the party’s divisions on immigration — and their personal feuds — that became apparent on Friday at the Republican event in Florida, where nearly a million undocumented immigrants are thought to live and a quarter of all residents are Hispanic.

RELATED: Ted Cruz turns on legal immigration

Donald Trump told stories of undocumented immigrants who had killed Americans, decried the existing system, and called Americans “suckers” who have to “pay for” undocumented immigrants once they arrive in the United State. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz feuded over their respective immigration stances, each attempting to stand out on the polarizing issue.

In particular, though, Trump’s condemnation of illegal immigrants were pointed and, at times, mocking.

“You ever hear of the Dream Act? The Dream Act isn’t for our children,” he said of the bill that would allow undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as young children potentially gain legal status. “The Dream Act is for other children that come into the country. I want the Dream Act to be for our children.”

Trump's comments created a stark contrast to Rubio, whose speech tracked his own upbringing in an immigrant family and who spoke about immigrants as "human beings not statistics." He sought to portray his rivals — particularly Cruz — as misleading on immigration.

“On the immigration front, I’m puzzled and quite frankly surprised by Ted’s attacks since Ted’s position on immigration's not much different than mine,” Rubio told reporters hours before Cruz announced his new plan. The Florida senator sought to normalize his own attempt to pass bipartisan immigration reform in 2013, a failed legislative effort that remains a problem for him in a race that’s polarized sharply around immigration.

“You should check the record. Sen. Cruz clearly supported an amendment and bragged how this amendment would bring people out of the shadows and how it would legalize people that were in this country illegally,” Rubio continued Friday. “If he’s changed his position, he has a right to change his position. He hasn’t been clear on that.”

RELATED: Florida’s native sons shine amid party spats

Cruz responded by announcing a new stance, reversing his past support for expanding the visas for high-skilled workers by announcing his intention to radically reduce them at a second event in Orlando on Friday. He also vowed a renewed a crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Cruz’s new plan secures an even more conservative stance within his party. It would freeze legal immigration levels so long as labor participation rates remain “below historic averages,” a move that could be a long-term delay, would end birthright citizenship, and stymie visas for highly-skilled workers for 180 days to investigate abuses. It seems aimed at mitigating the liabilities Rubio sought to expose, as the far-right base of their party often sees any legalization of undocumented immigrants as “amnesty.” 

The well-attended summit favored the highest-profile candidates. Lower polling candidates like Sen. Lindsey Graham, who spoke about wanting to not alienated Hispanic voters, and a panel on how to better reach minority voters, however, failed to excite attendees, who often headed to the halls to mingle instead.