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Eye On Candidates
December 28, 2015

Rubio, Cruz, Immigration, and ‘Amnesty’

The subject of immigration has become a hot topic in the 2016 Republican nomination contest, cited by many as the one of the key reasons for businessman Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the polls. The issue also helps to explain why Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for all his otherwise attractive qualities as a presidential candidate, has not (yet?) caught on. The Washington Post had an article over the weekend describing his problem with many in the GOP base:

Rubio’s past support for immigration reform haunts him on campaign trail

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was concluding his remarks about the merits of comprehensive immigration reform when he pointedly defended himself against conservative critics.

“Leaving things the way they are — that’s the real amnesty,” he said in April 2013, using one of the dirtiest words in the far-right lexicon to illustrate why he stood there as one of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators unveiling a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

More than two years later, as a leading Republican candidate for president, Rubio must once again explain his membership in the group to a skeptical conservative base. After simmering in the background for months, Rubio’s past support for comprehensive reform — he has since renounced it — was litigated before a national audience during a Dec. 15 televised debate. In the time since, it has gained a deeper foothold in the daily campaign fray than ever before.

Talk-radio hosts and conservative writers have brought it up in unflattering ways. Meanwhile, one of Rubio’s chief rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), has been reminding Republicans of Rubio’s participation in the bipartisan effort.

Of particular damage to Rubio may be that many influential conservative talk radio hosts and bloggers have concluded that the senator’s position on immigration as well as his discussion of the issue have effectively disqualified him from consideration:

“There are a lot of conservatives who feel lied to by Rubio,” said conservative blogger Erick Erickson….

“At the end of the day when people go vote, people are going to remember, of the two, it was Marco Rubio that was a member of the Gang of Eight and Ted Cruz that wasn’t, and that’s as complicated or simple as it’s going to end up being,” said Rush Limbaugh on a recent show.

As the Post article notes, the Cruz campaign has been particularly effective in going after Rubio on this issue. For its part, Rubio’s team charges that the Texas senator also supported some form of legalization for most of the illegal immigrants currently in the country, although Cruz denies it.

Fortunately, the Leadership Project for America (LPA) has been carefully tracking the positions of all of the candidates and can bring some clarity to the issue. In our profile of Rubio, here is how his immigration position and history is currently described:

Rubio was a member of the “Gang of Eight” that introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which was criticized heavily by many conservatives because, among other provisions, it provided a pathway to citizenship for many illegal aliens. He has since backed off of his support for a comprehensive bill, arguing instead that a piecemeal approach should be taken, with border-enforcement measures coming first.64

Rubio’s overall stance on immigration65 is that the border should be secured, illegal immigrants currently here should be allowed to remain (presuming no additional criminal activity), and legal immigration should be expanded, particularly in regard to highly skilled workers.

He summarized his position in an interview by saying, “The first two things you have to do is stop illegal immigration, then second you have to modernize our legal immigration system, and then third you can have a debate about how to even legalize people to begin with. And then ultimately in 10 or 12 years you could have a broader debate about how has this worked out and should we allow some of them to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship.”66

More recently, Rubio has signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation that would crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials.67 He also said he would end the Obama program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which permits illegal aliens who entered the country as young children to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation.68

It’s difficult to nail down what exactly “amnesty” means in the immigration debate, but assuming it means anything other than a massive deportation effort aimed at removing roughly 11 million illegal immigrants, it’s a fair term to attach to Rubio. Even under a somewhat less stringent definition, where anything that leaves open the possibility of citizenship for large numbers of illegals is considered amnesty, the term would still be reasonable.

What about Cruz? Until recently he’s been largely silent on the issue of what to do regarding those illegal immigrants currently in the country, and he’s been evasive in his comments on deportation in particular. Here is how LPA summarizes Cruz’s history on the issue:

In mid-November 2015, Cruz proposed suspending the H-1B visa program that brings skilled foreign workers into the country legally. He pledged to stop any increase in legal immigration until domestic labor participation returns to what he called “historical averages.” This represented a reversal of his past support for increasing the number of H-1B visas and green cards. He also pledged to increase deportations, although he has remained silent on whether all illegal aliens should be deported,75 with his campaign saying he supported “attrition through enforcement.”76 Despite authoring an amendment in 2013 to the so-called “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that would have denied citizenship but granted legal status to many illegal immigrants, Cruz says he has never supported granting legal status to illegal immigrants.77

Cruz introduced legislation that would facilitate the expedited processing of unaccompanied minors coming in through the southern border and would require the secretary of defense to reimburse states for National Guard deployments in response to large-scale border crossings of unaccompanied alien children.78 He is a co-sponsor of legislation that would cut federal funds given to cities that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities, often called “sanctuary cities.”79

He has consistently opposed proposals that create a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, including the DREAM Act. He does support a focus on securing the borders,80 including sponsoring legislation to triple the number of Border Patrol agents and finishing construction of a double-layered fence on the border.81 He favors ending “birthright citizenship,” which gives U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal aliens born in the U.S. Doing so would require a constitutional amendment.82

Cruz’s evasiveness on the issue of deportation hasn’t gone unnoticed by others. The conservative blog American Thinker observed the following after Cruz appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox News:

Ted Cruz has called for building a border fence and increasing the border security force, but he has very conspicuously failed to talk about deporting illegal aliens.  Greta Van Susteren spent 20 minutes trying to pin him down on the subject, repeatedly asking Cruz whether he would deport illegal aliens if elected president.

When asked, Cruz said he would enforce existing laws.  When Greta asked him again if he would deport illegals, Cruz refused to say the word deport, curiously being evasive by asking Greta, "Well, what does the law say?"  The law of course says deport, but it is odd that Cruz does not want to say the words.

And now I think I know why.  Greta pinned Cruz down, so Cruz admitted that he would use existing Border Patrol and customs personnel to enforce the law.  Well, the Border Patrol operate only on and around the border.  They have no effect on illegals living inside most of America.  And the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service makes, or used to make, a few spot raids here and there but as a whole didn't seek out illegals in a systematic way for deportation.

What Ted Cruz seems to be saying is that the law would go back to the way it was under George W. Bush.  If law enforcement encounters illegals, or if Customs on one of its occasional meatpacking factory raids finds illegals, they will be deported.  But there will be no systematic effort like Operation Wetback to deport illegals here in large numbers.  Essentially, Cruz is hoping that with systems like E-Verify, illegals will self-deport.

Cruz and Rubio are among the most effective communicators in politics today, and if there is any confusion or lack of clarity in what they say, it is intentional. Delving into both candidates’ histories on the issue, it seems that the only issue on immigration that separates the two is whether the majority of illegal immigrants currently in the country should eventually have the opportunity to earn citizenship, with Cruz saying “no” and Rubio saying “yes.” Both candidates would allow the majority of illegal aliens to continue to reside in the U.S., with Rubio offering legal status while Cruz would keep them “in the shadows,” as many characterize the status quo.

Does this mean Cruz as well as Rubio favors amnesty? If anything short of the massive deportation effort promised by Trump is considered amnesty, then yes.