Further aligning himself with the most restrictive voices in his party — and guarding his right flank amid new questions about how tough he is on the issue — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Friday released his plan to end illegal immigration and temporarily halt some legal immigration.
Speaking in Florida, the GOP presidential hopeful presented the plan in populist terms, lamenting how American workers are "left behind" as people flood the country unlawfully and snatch up menial jobs, driving down wages. Cruz also continued to distance himself from his past support for dramatically upping legal immigration — support that has been magnified by an increasingly contentious feud with presidential foe Marco Rubio.
Cruz's plan includes many proposals he has previously voiced, including finishing a border wall only minimally started under President Obama, tripling the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and putting an end to so-called "sanctuary cities," or jurisdictions that do not comply with federal immigration law. The plan's most notable parts, however, deal with curbing legal immigration, a relatively new addition to his approach.
If elected president, Cruz is promising to suspend for 180 days the H-1B visa program, which allows legal immigration for highly skilled foreign workers. With the program on hold, he says, a Cruz administration would investigate allegations of abuse that recently led him to abandon his 2013 support for increasing the number of visas fivefold. Cruz's previous position has become fodder for some GOP rivals and conservative radio hosts skeptical of Cruz's hardline immigration credentials.
More generally, Cruz wants to hold off on any increase in legal immigration "so long as American unemployment remains unacceptably high." In his remarks, he emphasized his support for legal immigration, but said it "needs to be structured so that it serves America's needs, so that it benefits our nation rather than undermining our nation."
The plan brings Cruz's immigration views closer in line with those of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who also wants to put new restrictions on legal immigration. Cruz has already backed Trump's call to end birthright citizenship, or the right to citizenship for any person born in the United States regardless of the immigration status of his or her parents.
Rolling out the plan at an Orlando church, Cruz took some fresh shots at his Republican rivals, many of whom he said "composed an epic poem in support of amnesty" at the most recent Republican debate. On Friday, he blasted them for dodging the question of whether they would repeal Obama's executive actions on immigration, which he has promised to do if elected.
"There’s some Republican candidates for president that don’t want to answer that question," Cruz said. "Sometimes they answer them one way on English stations and another way on Spanish stations."
While the event was rife with implications for Cruz's feud with Rubio, the Florida senator's name did not come up. However, Cruz left little doubt whom he was referring when he recalled how the Gang of Eight bill — a failed congressional attempt at immigration reform — was pushed by Democratic senators and "maybe a Republican or two."
Cruz was not as coy after his speech, telling reporters that in the Gang of Eight debate "Marco chose to stand with [New York Democratic U.S. Sen.] Chuck Schumer and to lead the fight tooth and nail for a massive amnesty plan."
The simmering rivalry between Cruz and Rubio boiled over Thursday, with the candidates and their campaigns openly sparring over immigration views. As Cruz sharpened his criticism of Rubio as soft on immigration, Rubio countered that the two actually had much in common on the issue.
At the center of the scrap is Rubio's membership in the Gang of Eight group of lawmakers who set out to reform the immigration system in 2013. Among the amendments Cruz proposed was one that would have stripped the legislation of a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally, but kept in place a pathway to legal status. Rubio's campaign sees Cruz's amendment as a tacit endorsement of a pathway to legal status; Cruz's team suggests that is not necessarily so, arguing that the amendment was part of a broader strategy to kill the bill.
In an interview Friday morning, Cruz said he "laughed out loud" when he heard Rubio say their immigrations views are similar.
"That’s like Obama saying my position is the same as his on Obamacare," Cruz told conservative radio host Mike Gallagher. "That’s like the Ayatollah Khomeini saying my position is the same as his on the Iranian nuclear deal. It is laughingly, blazingly, on-its-face false."
Speaking with reporters Friday morning in Florida, Rubio repeated his assertion that there is little daylight between himself and Cruz on immigration, saying he was "puzzled and quite frankly surprised by Ted's attacks, since Ted's position on immigration is not much different than mine."
"He is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally," Rubio said. "If he's changed that position, then he certainly has a right to change his position on that issue, but he should be clear about that."