Editor's note: This story has been updated.
LAS VEGAS — After meeting with Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, Hispanic conservative leaders are expressing concern that the Texas senator is in favor of "self-deportation," an immigration position that helped defeat the last Republican nominee.
Speaking with reporters Monday ahead of the fifth GOP debate, an influential group of Latino Republicans said campaign officials impressed upon them in a closed-door meeting that Cruz supports "attrition through enforcement." That view, one of the leaders said, assumes that once certain enforcement measures are put in place, "there'll be no need for legalization because there will be no undocumented immigrants in the country."
"They don't like to use the term self-deportation, but for all intents and purposes, that's really what self-deportation means," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership. "So we learned today, to our dismay, that Sen. Cruz believes in attrition through enforcement, or ... no legalization whatsoever."
The position, Aguilar later told reporters, is "perhaps even worse" than Donald Trump's plan for dealing with people already in the country illegally. The group has already said it could not support Trump as the GOP nominee due to his hardline immigration proposals, which have been characterized as amounting to mass deportation.
Asked about the campaign's meeting with the group Monday, a Cruz spokeswoman said the discussion reflected the senator's belief that the enforcing the law comes before everything else in the immigration debate. That includes deporting people who are illegally residing in the United States, said the spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier.
"Enforcing the law is enforcing the law no matter how anyone wants to spin it," Frazier said. "Our legal immigration system is a mess because there’s a political unwillingness among politicians in Washington to enforce our laws."
Aguilar and the others briefed reporters following a series of meetings earlier Monday with the leading GOP campaigns, which also included those of Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Group members sounded alarmed as they recalled their discussion with Cruz campaign chairman Chad Sweet about what they interpreted as the senator's unbending opposition to offering any form of legalization to the 11 million people already in the country against the law.
"We really need him to clarify because ... we heard today for the first time as we've never heard from his campaign before," said Rev. Tony Suarez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Sweet and other Cruz campaign officials were emphatic that the senator is an ardent supporter of legal immigration, according to the group. To that end, Aguilar said Cruz's campaign promised that "once they reviewed all the immigrant visas, that they would call for an increase in legal immigration and visas."
The immigration plan Cruz laid out last month does not go that far. It only calls for halting "any increases in legal immigration so long as American unemployment remains unacceptably high."
Aguilar reminded reporters that Cruz once proposed dramatically increasing the number of visas for highly skilled workers as an add-on to immigration reform legislation in 2013. Cruz has since distanced himself from that idea, advocating for a suspension of the H1-B visa program until corruption can be rooted out.
"They didn't back away from that amendment," Aguilar said of the group's meeting with Cruz campaign officials, adding that there may be "some double talk" happening on the issue.
Cruz's view on legalization, as characterized by Aguilar and others in the group, is also a bit different from his recent public statements on the issue. Pressed by reporters, Cruz often reiterates his categorical opposition to "amnesty" but does not rule out a path to legalization once the border is secure, which he says is his priority.
"Many people want to create a political wedge issue by focusing on the people who are here illegally," Frazier said Monday.
The news conference Monday marked a shift from two months ago, when the group huddled before the third GOP debate and issued a stern rebuke of Trump for his immigration views. At the time, they warned they would single out other candidates in the future if they did not see a "course correction" in the lead-up to the fifth debate, which is being held Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
Throughout the news conference, the leaders emphasized their desire for a Republican nominee who can beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. If past is prologue, they suggested, Cruz's immigration beliefs could be fatal in a general election.
"Self-deportation is a policy and political loser," said Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund. "You can ask President Mitt Romney all about what he thinks about self-deportation."