On Thursday, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—the frontrunners for the Republican nomination among people who refuse to acknowledge the polls showing Donald Trump and Ben Carson as the clear leaders in the contest to be their party’s choice for leader of the free world—got into a fight.
Cruz started it during a talk radio interview after the host, Laura Ingraham, asked him about Rubio’s record on immigration reform. In 2013, as a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” Rubio worked to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which made it through the Senate only to be scuttled in the House. Lately, though, Rubio has recanted his support for the bill, saying that the people have spoken, he has taken their concerns to heart, and that the border must be secured before immigration reform can be revisited. Cruz, like many conservatives, isn’t buying it. “Talk is cheap,” he told Ingraham. Rubio’s actions, Cruz continued, told a different story: “The Gang of Eight—they fought tooth and nail to try to jam this amnesty down the American people’s throat.”
As is his habit, Cruz preserved a veneer of technically plausible deniability by saying “the Gang of Eight” rather than “the person most likely to single-handedly thwart my chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination, the intelligent yet affable Marco Rubio.” But it was a pointed criticism and his obvious target responded ruthlessly. Asked about Cruz’s comments later in the day, Rubio colored himself bemused: “If you look at it, I don’t think our positions are dramatically different.”
Given the political context, this claim seems brazenly provocative and prima facie implausible. Cruz has been campaigning as a conservative alternative to what he terms the corruption of the Washington establishment. His chances of winning the nomination are contingent on his ability to win over Republican voters currently supporting candidates such as Trump, who, during Tuesday’s debate, called for a revival of Operation Wetback. Rubio, meanwhile, is persona non grata among those voters, thanks in part to conservatives such as Cruz, who criticized the 2013 bill as an effort to provide “amnesty” to the eleven million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States.
And so many people, on both the right and the left, were startled when Rubio’s campaign operatives started to unload the evidence that Cruz, despite his stated opposition to “amnesty,” may be a longstanding supporter of “amnesty.” The most succinct indictment came from Cruz himself, courtesy of a 2013 video clip of remarks he offered in the Senate Judiciary Committee, directed specifically to all advocates who were, as he put it, “rightfully concerned” about how his proposed changes would affect the unauthorized immigrants themselves:
[T]hose 11 million under this current bill would still be eligible for RPI status. They would still be eligible for legal status and indeed, under the terms of the bill, they would be eligible for LPR status as well so that they are out of the shadows, which the proponents of this bill repeatedly point to as their principal objective to provide a legal status for those who are here illegally to be out of the shadows. This amendment would allow that to happen, but what it would do is remove the pathway to citizenship so that there are real consequences that respect the rule of law and that treat legal immigrants with the fairness and respect they deserve.
His goal, Cruz added, was not to kill the bill—”I want immigration reform to pass”—and to that end, he offered a prediction that quickly proved prescient: his changes, which would allow for legal status but not a pathway to citizenship, would help the bill’s chances of passage. The amnesty proposed by Rubio et al, by contrast, made it much more likely that the bill would be scuttled in the House.
The clip corroborates Rubio’s version of events: “Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. In fact, when the Senate bill was proposed, he proposed giving them work permits.” Since then, Cruz’s camp has pushed back, suggesting that in 2013, he was proposing a sort of thought experiment, designed to expose the “hypocrisy” of the Democrats. But that’s a convoluted and lawyerly line of argument, too clever by half, and potentially counterproductive.
There’s a better explanation: both Rubio and Cruz are correct. As Rubio says, they have publicly agreed on most major components of immigration reform. In my view, that is hardly shocking. Trumps and nativists notwithstanding, most level-headed people agree that mass deportation is impractical, and that for practical reasons, if nothing else, the government should extend some sort of legal status to the unauthorized immigrants who are already in the country.
But to Cruz’s point, the public record also shows one significant point of disagreement. Cruz has consistently pointed to the pathway to citizenship—not legal status in general, but citizenship specifically—as the reason he opposed the 2013 bill that Rubio supported; in his assessment, the pathway to citizenship would be “amnesty.” Rubio is defining amnesty more broadly, as any legalization of unauthorized immigrants already in the country. Under that definition, Cruz supported amnesty in 2013. Both interpretations are defensible because the term “amnesty” is not clearly defined.
Furthermore: there’s obviously a disconnect between what people have perceived Cruz’s position to be and what he actually said. But Rubio’s assessment was consistent with my impressions. Frankly, I thought it was common knowledge, and uncontroversial, that Cruz has opposed “amnesty” but supported some form of legalization. On Thursday evening, after Rubio kicked off all this ruckus, I looked up some things I’ve written in the past couple of years to see how I characterized them.
This is from April 2013, in a piece for Foreign Policy addressing Cruz’s apparent unpopularity with his colleagues in Congress:
Many observers were surprised when Cruz conspicuously declined to make common cause earlier this year with Sen. Marco Rubio on immigration reform. Cruz, like Rubio, is the son of an immigrant from Cuba, and Texas Republicans have, as a group, been more moderate on the issue than the national GOP. But unauthorized immigration is, of course, both an economic issue and a legal one. Someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed Texas’s 2001 law that made certain undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities, is looking at it through the former lens. Cruz sees it as a rule-of-law issue, arguing that establishing a path to citizenship would be “profoundly unfair” to legal immigrants.
This is from November 2014, in a piece for Politico Magazine arguing that Cruz’s biggest weakness, as a presidential candidate, would be his inexperience, rather than his extremism, which I considered overblown:
He has never fully committed himself to the Tea Party’s more controversial causes. In 2013, for example, Cruz stared down Senator Marco Rubio’s efforts to gather bipartisan support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but not because he was against immigration reform itself; rather, his objections were specific to the proposal at hand.
That same month, November 2014, I wrote a piece here laying out the conservative objections to Obama’s executive action on DAPA:
In fact, Republicans can just as well argue that Obama was never seriously willing to work with them. The bill passed by the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats, included a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already in the country. That was a priority for the president, at the time; he had made it clear that the idea of passing comprehensive immigration reform without such a provision made no sense to him: “For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.” What actually made no sense was the president’s insistence on this provision. Many Republicans were opposed to it—some out of knee-jerk nativism, perhaps, but others due to more substantive concerns over fairness, rule of law, and moral hazard. Many of these “amnesty” critics, including Ted Cruz, went on to say that they would support some kind of legal status for unauthorized immigrants already in the country.
And in March 2015, I wrote another piece for Politico Magazine, arguing that Cruz’s easily anticipated strategy for winning the nomination was risky, because he would have to walk a tricky tightrope to keep the Republican base from challenging his conservative credentials:
[A]ccusations of extremism don’t hold up; he decried Obama’s “executive amnesty” again today, for example, but he’s also on the record in favor of a pathway to legal status short of citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already in the country.
Cruz can’t fully fault his supporters for misunderstanding him. He himself has summarized Obama’s immigration programs as “executive amnesty.” More generally, it’s been obvious from the outset of Cruz’s campaign that his strategy of trying to out-conservative everyone else carries the risk that he’ll be taken to task when any such misunderstandings come to light. In this case, his task should be easy enough. He’s already made the case that the difference between a pathway to citizenship and a pathway to legal status is more than merely symbolic. He can, and should, make it again. I think it’s revisionist for Cruz’s supporters to argue that he didn’t really support any form of legal status in 2013, that it was all a ploy. It’s also an odd line of defense, because it’s tantamount to insisting that he was lying through his teeth in 2013. And ultimately, it seems counterproductive: if Cruz disavows his support for any form of legalization now, he’d be conceding Rubio’s point that the two are equivalent, and that either can be properly defined as amnesty.