When it comes to immigration reform, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has made it abundantly clear what he opposes: giving citizenship to people who broke the law to come here.
What has not been as evident is what he supports: legal status for millions of people here already, while making it easier for immigrants to come here through the front door.
“I have said many times that I want to see common-sense immigration reform pass,” he said. “I think most Americans want to see the problem fixed.”
But for Cruz, a Tea Party favorite who represents a state with rapidly changing demographics, finding common ground will not be easy. Many of the bedrock Tea Party supporters who helped elect him are immigration hard-liners who object to even the slightest nod toward amnesty, a loaded word that generally means providing an avenue for legal residency to people who entered the United States illegally. Such conservatives tend to favor mass deportation, or “self-deportation,” for the millions of undocumented immigrants.
On the other hand, Hispanics in Texas are projected to eclipse the white population sometime in the next decade, and Cruz cannot afford to alienate large numbers of Latino voters with a strident anti-immigrant tone and a hard-line legislative approach. Major business interests also are supporting a path to citizenship.
What Cruz has tried to articulate in both word and deed is a middle ground. It got no support from Democrats in Washington, but it goes further than many on the far right want to go by offering leniency to undocumented immigrants here already: A path to legal status, but not to citizenship. A green card with no right to naturalization.
Immigration-reform legislation from the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight passed that chamber in June and includes a 13-year path to citizenship. Cruz pushed unsuccessfully for amendments that would have, among other things, eliminated the citizenship component.
Asked about what to do with the people here illegally, however, he stressed that he had never tried to undo the goal of allowing them to stay.
“The amendment that I introduced removed the path to citizenship, but it did not change the underlying work permit from the Gang of Eight,” he said during a recent visit to El Paso. Cruz also noted that he had not called for deportation or, as Mitt Romney famously advocated, self-deportation.
Cruz said recent polling indicated that people outside Washington support some reform, including legal status without citizenship. He said he was against naturalization because it rewarded lawbreakers and was unfair to legal immigrants. It also perpetuates illegal crossings, he added.
Besides barring citizenship while instituting some level of legalization for those here already, Cruz has proposed increasing the number of green cards awarded annually, to 1.35 million from 675,000. He also wants to eliminate the per-country limit that he said left applicants from countries like Mexico, China and India hamstrung when they tried to gain legal entry to this country.
Cruz said the Obama administration and partisan Democrats would not yield on the citizenship requirement, which they know would kill the entire effort because of a lack of support in the House. The result, he said, will be a future campaign tool by which Democrats can blame Republicans for failing to overhaul immigration.
“If your objective is actually to pass a bill insisting on a path to citizenship, it is in both intent and effect a poison pill,” he said, adding that he thinks many of the immigration groups working on the issue are “being taken advantage of.”
Democrats say that Cruz is not in line with what most Americans favor.
“The majority of Americans support a path to earned citizenship for people who have long been part of our communities — pass a background check, pay a fee and pledge allegiance to our flag,” said U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. “With so many people and groups in favor of immigration reform, common sense would dictate that those blocking reform are the ones out of the mainstream.”
Cruz has said the stalemate is denying help to farmers and ranchers who “have a real need for labor resources.”
On that score, he finds himself out of step with hard-liners who do not believe immigrant laborers are needed.
Ira Mehlman, a national spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates increased border security and limited immigration, opposes expanding the pool of legal workers the way Cruz proposes. And citizenship or not, he added, legal status still means immigrants take resources from citizens already here.
"We’re also opposed to the expansion of guest-worker programs,” he said. “There is no evidence of a worker shortage."
Instead the group wants tougher internal enforcement so illegal immigrants adhere to what he calls "voluntary compliance," or self-deportation. Likewise, the Texas Tea Party activist JoAnn Fleming said she opposed allowing illegal immigrants to get “in line ahead of people who have tried to do it the right way.”
Cruz routinely cites his own history as inspiration for his views on immigration. His father, Rafael Cruz, a North Texas pastor and Tea Party favorite in his own right, fled Cuba and worked as a dishwasher before attending the University of Texas at Austin on a student visa, and he is now “living the American dream,” Ted Cruz says.
But critics of Cruz argue that Cubans are awarded what some today would call amnesty. Federal law allows Cubans to adjust their legal status a year after arriving.
Cruz said American refugee law had always been sympathetic to those in his father’s situation, even before Fidel Castro took hold of the island.
“U.S. immigration law, for many decades, has included asylum and refugee status for those who have credible fears of persecution and oppression,” he said. He added that Fidel Castro “established a repressive Communist regime that has tortured and murdered countless dissidents.”
Cuba poses a different scenario from other countries, he said, because U.S. immigration law has recognized for decades that there is a qualitative difference between fleeing political persecution and fleeing poverty.
Mexico, he said, is a great country, although its drug violence and poverty are horrific, and Mexicans with a credible fear of persecution should apply for asylum. But the problem is not as widespread there, he said.
“It is not the case that throughout the country of Mexico, everyone there has a credible fear of persecution,” he said. “Our laws allow that to be made on a case-by-case basis.”