LAS VEGAS — Ted Cruz and his campaign made clearer than ever Tuesday night that he does not support any form of legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country illegally.
During the fifth Republican presidential debate, the Texas senator took his firmest position yet on the divisive question during an exchange with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
"I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization," Cruz told the Florida senator, who had pressed the Texan to say whether he would "rule out ever legalizing people that are in this country now."
Cruz had previously not ruled out providing a path to legal status for the 11 to 12 million people who are in the United States unlawfully. On the campaign trail, he routinely brushes aside the question as irrelevant until the border is secure.
After the debate, Cruz campaign chairman Chad Sweet dismissed the idea that Cruz's language left him wiggle room to eventually support legalization.
"I'm here tonight and I want to make this clear to everybody, so you can put me on record on this: Sen. Cruz unequivocally — unequivocally — does not support legalization," Sweet told reporters.
Instead, Cruz favors "attrition through enforcement," or reducing the number of people in the country illegally by enforcing the law, Sweet said. During the debate, Cruz alluded to that method while criticizing the "Obama administration's policy of releasing criminal illegal aliens," pointing out that former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton deported 10 million and 12 million people, respectively.
In an interview after the debate with CNN's Jake Tapper, Cruz was once more pressed about what he would do with people in the country unlawfully. While he was not as explicit as Sweet was with reporters, Cruz again raised the idea of "attrition through enforcement" in his response on CNN.
"I would enforce the law," Cruz replied when Tapper specifically asked if Cruz would deport the people. "The president doesn't have the authority to say, 'I don't like this law. I'm not going to enforce it.' You enforce the law, and federal immigration law provides that if someone is here illegally and apprehended, that they should be sent back to their home country."
Asked about Sweet's assertion that Cruz is "unequivocally" opposed to legalization, Rubio's campaign said that was news to them.
"That's not what his candidate just said on CNN, both in the post-[debate] interview with Jake Tapper and on the debate stage itself, where he left the door open for future legalization, which let's remind everyone — that was his position just two years ago, and on the campaign trail, he routinely ducks it now," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told reporters after the debate. "So his staff might want to sync up with his candidate on what his position is on that because it's unclear to voters and the media."
Rubio's campaign has been working to show that Cruz's immigration views are not unlike their candidate's. Rubio played a leading role in 2013 legislation that would have offered a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally. Cruz has scoffed at suggestions that his position is the same as the Florida senator's on the issue, saying the Rubio campaign is trying to "muddy the waters."