The immigration wars that bitterly divided the GOP in 2007 and 2013 have made their way, as it was inevitable they would, into the 2016 Republican primary. An argument that began in a measured way during Tuesday evening’s debate in Milwaukee carried over onto the campaign trail Thursday, with an intense back-and-forth between Florida senator Marco Rubio and Texas senator Ted Cruz, the candidates now viewed by many as the most likely prospects to win the Republican nomination.
Rubio’s support for the failed Gang of Eight bill has made him vulnerable on immigration and Cruz is beginning to pummel him for it. That was to be expected. What is more surprising is that Rubio is hitting back, arguing in so many words that Cruz is as weak on the issue as he is. “I don’t think our positions are dramatically different,” he told reporters in South Carolina on Thursday. “Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally.”
What Rubio was referring to was Cruz’s support, during the 2013 debate over the Gang of Eight bill, for increasing levels of legal immigration, and his introduction of an amendment during that debate that would have removed the language in the bill that granted citizenship to those here illegally but nonetheless allowed them to remain in the country with legal status. That’s essentially the position proposed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has been widely pilloried for his views on immigration, in his 2014 book. So Rubio’s charge has Cruz fending off an attack from the right, a rare circumstance for him that explains the hit’s special potency as well as Cruz’s furious response.
Rubio’s charge has Cruz fending off an attack from the right, a rare circumstance for him
The Cruz campaign says the amendment was intended to scuttle the Gang of Eight bill and does not reflect the senator’s views — an explanation to which strong opponents of the immigration bill are sympathetic. “As I saw it, it was a ploy to try to stop the bill, in the hopes that it might pass with Republican votes but then turn off enough Democrats to kill the overall bill,” says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a leading immigration hawk. “It didn’t work, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have tried the amendment thing in his position.”
The Cruz campaign says the amendment was introduced as a poison pill intended to kill the bill. “Senator Cruz’s strategy against the Gang of Eight Bill successfully exposed the bill for the amnesty it was and, because of that, the House didn’t take up the bill and it never passed Congress,” says a Cruz adviser. “It effectively turned the table against Democrats to make immigration a positive issue for Republicans in 2014.”
Cruz has also been a vocal supporter of increasing legal-immigration levels, particularly for high-skilled workers. He proposed two more amendments to the 2013 immigration bill that would have increased the number of both legal immigrants and high-skilled immigrants allowed into the country. “I am an unapologetic advocate of legal immigration,” he told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York at the time.
Rubio, who has enormous exposure on immigration, obviously isn’t well-positioned to hit anyone else on the issue. But he hopes to bring to bear new information about Cruz, and some say that he has opened a line of attack that others may pick up.
“I think this really gets to be problematic if a guy like Trump latches onto this issue and really tries to drive it home,” says Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa GOP and the editor-in-chief of The Iowa Republican.Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who has tried to target blue-collar conservatives on the campaign trail, is already on the case.
“He picked a fight he can’t win,” Santorum communications director Matt Beynon says of Cruz. “It was just astounding that Senator Cruz put his immigration platform under the context of fighting for the American worker at the Fox Business debate. His proposals do exactly the opposite. They’re hurting the American worker.”
Not everyone sees Cruz’s past statements as a problem for him.
“At least from my perspective, I don’t see that as Cruz weakening on immigration; I would see that as Cruz hopefully trying to provide leadership on immigration,” says Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, an influential Iowa-based conservative group.
“I think what everybody wants is they want some solutions to the illegal-immigration issue, and then a 21st-century immigration policy. And so if Cruz is coming up with a 21st-century immigration policy, I see that as a step forward,” he says.
By creating a controversy over somebody else’s position on immigration, rather than his own, Rubio has executed a bit of political jujitsu. Whether or not it’s enough to blunt the coming assault from Cruz and others is one of the key questions of the next phase of the campaign.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review. Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.