The battle between the senators over the issue seems to be the top political story of the day. In addition to several analyses at NRO, you can read an informative discussion of it from Byron York. Let me add a few points:
1) There’s a dispute about whether Cruz has in the past supported providing legal status to illegal immigrants: He says he never did; his critics say he did. But I do not think it is controversial to say that he never flatly rejected legalization until this week. As York reports, he now has. That will help Cruz make what I take to be his basic case on this issue: that he was more aligned with immigration hawks than Rubio was in 2013, and he is more aligned with them than Rubio is today.
2) The definitive statement that Cruz opposes legalization came from Chad Sweet, Cruz’s national campaign chairman, who in the same remarks said that Cruz wants to “save and expand our legal immigration system.” Cruz’s immigration plan, however, rejects increases in legal immigration until labor force participation rates increase. On this issue, Cruz’s position seems to be evolving–which is fine by me, as I think it is evolving in the right direction, toward greater skepticism of the need for expanded legal immigration. I hope Rubio moves in this direction too. The needless increase in immigration levels has always seemed to me the most objectionable part of “comprehensive immigration reform.”
3) Speaking of Rubio, his explanations for his own shifts on immigration raise some questions. When he ran for the Senate, he did so on an enforcement-first platform. In 2013, he explained why he had abandoned that approach in favor of seeking simultaneously to ramp up enforcement and begin a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants:
For example, passing a law that only focuses on modernization and enforcement and leaves for another day the issue of those here illegally is not a good idea. Because as the enforcement measures kick in, millions of people living here illegally will be unable to work and provide for themselves and their families. The resulting humanitarian impact will then force us to scramble to address it. It is better to address it now as part of an orderly and measured process.
The only solution I know that can work is to reform legal immigration in a way that is good for the economy, do everything we can to secure the border, and allow illegal immigrants to eventually earn permanent residency by passing background checks, paying a fine, learning English and waiting at the back of the line for at least 10 years, at the same time that border security and enforcement measures are put in place to prevent this problem from happening again.
I don’t think this argument holds water. You can implement workplace enforcement for new hires, and if so you don’t have to deport millions of illegal immigrants. But leave that aside for a minute. Rubio himself now says that we have to do enforcement first to win the trust of the American people. Later, once people trust that immigration laws are going to be enforced going forward, illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions can get citizenship. That’s what Rubio said at this week’s debate. How can Rubio square this with what he said back in 2013? Back then he specifically rejected enforcement first as unworkable and inhumane. If he wants a way out, I think he’d have to say that he now understands that you can apply e-verify only for new hires–but then you’d have to wonder why that thought didn’t occur to him back in 2013.