Listen to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz on immigration policy these days and there’s little daylight between the firebrand senator and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.
They’re both in the deport-first-and-ask-questions-later camp.
But that wasn’t always the case. In the summer of 2013, as Congress was mulling sweeping immigration reforms, Cruz was promoting a “middle ground” that would have dramatically boosted legal immigration and even given legal status and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the country.
“If the proponents of this bill actually demonstrate a commitment not to politics, not to campaigning all the time, but to actually fixing this problem, to finding a middle ground, that would fix the problem and also allow for those 11 million people who are here illegally a legal status with citizenship off the table,” Cruz said on the floor of the Senate in June 2013. “I believe that is the compromise that can pass.”
Later, in an extensive interview with The Texas Tribune, Cruz expressed frustration that the media wasn’t covering his efforts to fix the nation’s immigration woes because it didn’t “fit the narrative they’re writing, which is Republicans are anti-immigrant.”
“There was no stronger advocate of legal immigration in the Senate than I am,” Cruz told the Tribune. “We’re all the children of immigrants. I think that is the fundamental DNA of America.”
A far different Ted Cruz has shown up on the campaign trail in recent weeks. Gone are the pledges to double legal immigration to 1.35 million people a year — up from 675,000 — and to eliminate the country-by-country caps that Cruz said at the time “penalizes the nation of Mexico significantly.”
That proposal included a whopping fivefold increase in legal temporary work permits, known as H-1B visas.
Cruz jettisoned those increases weeks ago when he advocated for restrictions on legal immigration until the economy improves and specifically called for a temporary moratorium on all H1-B visas.
For weeks after that flip-flop, which was contained in his sweeping immigration campaign proposal, Cruz took heat for repeatedly refusing to answer what he would do with the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants who are in the country now.
That nuance disappeared Tuesday at the Venetian Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, where Cruz took the GOP debate stage as a top tier candidate for president and distanced himself from the positions he advocated as a newly minted U.S. senator.
“You enforce the law, and federal immigration law provides if someone is here illegally and is apprehended that they should be sent back to their home country,” Cruz said during the debate. “It’s critical.”
Cruz also tried to make a clean break from his own record, saying, “I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization." After the debate, Cruz campaign chairman Chad Sweet made clear the senator was ruling out any form of legalization, telling reporters Cruz “unequivocally” opposes it.
Yet during the August congressional recess of 2013, as Cruz held political events in Texas, he made it clear that — despite his Tea Party bonafides and his famous clashes with the GOP establishment — he wanted to help forge an immigration deal that could pass a divided Congress.
And that included legalization of those here without authorization.
In the 2013 Tribune interview, Cruz repeatedly stressed that the changes he proposed to the so-called Gang of Eight immigration reform bill — which his GOP presidential rival, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, supported despite heavy criticism from conservatives — would have permitted millions of people here illegally to stay and work.
Cruz’s allies have since argued that his proposals on the immigration legislation amounted to a “poison pill,” a legislative tactic meant to undermine support for legislation. But Cruz himself made clear both in the Tribune interview and in other public statements about the proposal that he was trying to help immigration reform pass, not keep it from passing.
“My objective was not to kill immigration reform but to amend the Gang of Eight bill so that it actually solves the problem rather than making the problem worse,” Cruz told the Washington Examiner in May 2013.
As he explained his position to the Tribune during a ride from Kerrville to Austin on Aug. 21, 2013, Cruz left no doubt that undocumented immigrants would get work permits if his proposals were adopted.
He said his amendments "did not alter the underlying language of the bill that would have allowed for legalization and indeed would have allowed for them to receive a green card.” What it would not have done is put them on a pathway to citizenship, which Cruz has consistently maintained would be unfair to those who waited in line to immigrate legally to the U.S.
In that interview, Cruz said congressional Democrats — and he called out Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York in particular — knew they could never get a bill with a pathway to citizenship through Congress but were pushing it anyway for political reasons.
“Most tellingly, he is willing to do nothing, zero, for the 11 million people who are here illegally, because what Sen. Schumer just said is if he doesn’t get 100 percent of his partisan political objective, they can stay in the shadows, be denied legalization,” Cruz told the Tribune. “That is a profoundly cynical view.”
Asked if some might consider it amnesty to give immigrants legal status even though they came to the U.S. without papers, Cruz signaled that he’d rather get a partial victory than nothing at all.
“I have said from the very beginning that I believe in compromise,” Cruz told the Tribune. “Ronald Reagan said, 'What do you do if you are offered half a loaf?' Answer? You take it. And then you come back for more.”
Rubio, now one of Cruz’s closest competitors for the GOP presidential nomination, has been working for weeks to show that Cruz's immigration views are not that different from his. Rubio supports a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, a position he did not shy away from in the debate Tuesday night.
“I don’t think anybody watching TV tonight didn’t know what Marco Rubio’s position on immigration was,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told reporters after the debate. “A lot of them still don’t know what Ted Cruz’s position on immigration is.”