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Making Sense of the Cruz-Rubio Cage Match: Both Have Flip-Flopped from 2013 Positions; Both Now Support Versions of Self-Deportation

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Frank Sharry: “A party that needs to expand its appeal in a country undergoing a huge demographic transition has lurched to the right in a way that is likely to make it unelectable in the 2016 presidential race.”

Political observers have been busy this week assessing the immigration back-and-forth between the top-tier Republican presidential candidates Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).  Did Cruz support a path to legal status without citizenship in 2013 or was his proposal to do just that a ruse and a poison pill?  Is Rubio right that Cruz has flip-flopped?  Is Rubio still a committed reformer or is his new step-by-step approach a false promise of reform?

As close observers of the immigration debate, here’s our take:

It’s important to recall the political context for the immigration debate in early 2013.  Romney had just lost, Latino voters voted overwhelmingly against him, the RNC called for the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform, and many powerful Republicans and conservative thought leaders called on the GOP to enact immigration reform with a path to legal status or citizenship.  There was a widespread expectation that some version of immigration reform with a legalization and/or citizenship component would be enacted before the end of the year.

Rubio made a bold move when he joined the Gang of 8 in 2013 and fought hard for a Senate bill that ultimately passed the Senate in June of 2013 by 68-32.  He was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as the “Republican Savior.” But as conservative media rose up against the Senate approach – immigration reform with a path to citizenship, an increase in skilled immigration and strong enforcement at the borders and at the point of hire – his poll numbers with Republicans  in early primary states took a hit.  He eventually betrayed the cause, came out in opposition to a comprehensive approach to reform, and took up his current stance.  He calls it a step-by-step approach that eventually could include a path to citizenship, but when you unpack what he’s really saying what you find is a consultant-crafted word blizzard that is a path to nowhere (see more below).

Cruz, who comes out of the George W. Bush world in Texas, but got elected as a Tea Party darling, proposed an amendment that would have left a path to legal status intact.  He argued that he wanted immigrants to come out of the shadows.  He said he wanted immigration reform to pass, and that he believed his amendment would bring more House Republican support.  Now he claims it was a poison pill amendment to kill the bill.  This retroactive spin asks us to disbelieve what he said and believe that his amendment would scuttle a bill that passed a few weeks later by a 2-1 margin.  Our take, and we were in the room for the markup, is that Cruz wanted to get to Rubio’s right on immigration reform without landing in the rejectionist camp of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL).  When Sessions proposed the kind of legal immigration restrictions Cruz now supports, the amendment failed 17-1, with Sessions – and not Cruz – the only vote in favor.  When Sessions tried to stall proceedings in the Senate Judiciacy Committee, he did so with no support from his fellow Republicans, including Cruz (see piece from that period by Dana Milbank here).

Our take at the time was that Cruz was positioning himself for his presidential run.  His comments in the Judiciary Committee weren’t directed to those of us in the room, but at laying down his policy stances in bold, simple strokes: strong support for greatly increased border security, strong support for greatly increased skills-based immigration, support for bringing immigrants out of the shadows but without a chance at citizenship.  At the time, it was the conservative position, unless you wanted to join the then-marginalized ranks of Sessions and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).  He was not a major factor in the Senate floor debate, and his claims to be on the front lines in the fight against the bill with Sessions is, at best, vastly overstated.

The Cruz campaign’s retroactive spin that he was never for a path to legal status doesn’t pass our laugh test.  Yes, he bobbed and weaved on the right in hopes of allowing both interpretations – conservative reformer and poison pill proponent (see excellent analysis of this dynamic by Greg Sargent here) – but we are now asked to believe notwhat he said and proposed, but believe that some privately-held intention to blow up the bill was behind an eloquent defense of legalization without citizenship.  Yes, he wanted to make mischief and peel off Republican votes, but in the Senate debate he was not a major factor.  Our contention is that he was focused not on the fight over immigration bill in the Senate but on positioning himself to Rubio’s right and Sessions’ left for the 2016 presidential race.

The bottom line: both candidates supported immigration reform, with Rubio initially intent on making it happen and Cruz initially intent on being seen as a more conservative supporter of immigration reform (if not the underlying Senate bill).  And both candidates have flip-flopped as the center of gravity of the immigration debate in the Republican party has moved far right.  In 2014, a number of factors contributed to this shift: rising opposition to the Gang of 8 bill in the conservative infotainment industry, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) primary loss, the arrival of Central American kids at the southern border, the angry reaction to Obama’s executive actions and the attempt by the Republican majority to use a threatened shutdown of DHS to overturn Obama’s executive actions.  In 2015 this shift was turbocharged by the rise of Donald Trump and his calls for mass deportation, the end of birthright citizenship and a ban on all Muslims – positions once consigned to the fever swamps of the white nationalist movement.  Yes, Cruz is straining to get to the right of Rubio and seems to have succeeded.  But he’s ended up to Mitt Romney’s right and close to Trump’s noxious positions.

So, where Cruz and Rubio have ended up today is a far cry from the days in early 2013 when immigration reform seemed inevitable.  Here’s our take on their current stands, along with that of current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump:

Donald Trump’s Mass Deportation Stance: Donald Trump promises to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in America within 18-24 months.  He promises to deploy a Deportation Force to do the job and says the key is “good management.”  In addition, he promises to revoke the citizenship of some 5 million U.S. citizen children whose parents are undocumented and deport them as well.  He also says he will round up Syrian refugees already resettled in the U.S. and send them back.  As if promising to expel a quarter of the nation’s Latino community and send refugees back to their persecutors isn’t enough, he recently called for a ban on the admission of all Muslims into the United States.  We should not become desensitized to the radicalism of these nativist proposals nor his religious and racial bigotry. The fact that many GOP voters express support for these ideas is especially chilling.  Nor should we overlook the fact that Trump’s words and “policy” prescriptions are having real-life consequences, including numerous instances of hate crimes and harassment against Latinos, Muslim-Americans, and African-Americans linked to the “combustible” atmosphere fostered by the candidate and his campaign (see this recap of the disturbing scene on display at the latest Trump event in Las Vegas).  Trump remains the GOP frontrunner and his fellow candidates have so far refused to reject the notion of supporting Trump if he becomes the party’s nominee. In fact, they themselves are falling prey to the Trump Effect and articulating ever-more-restrictive policies on immigration as the primary progresses.  Witness Cruz and Rubio just this week.

Ted Cruz’s Self-Deportation Stance: Ted Cruz has now officially adopted an immigration stance that is to the right of Mitt Romney’s.  During this week’s debate and in the post-debate spin room, Cruz and his campaign team made it clear that the candidate “unequivocally — unequivocally — does not support legalization.”  His “attrition through enforcement” approach – an idea taken directly from extreme anti-immigrant groups – is the same as Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” stance.  The hideous idea is to make the lives of undocumented immigrants so miserable that those not rounded up will pick up and “voluntarily” leave the country.  Unlike Romney, Cruz is now embracing significant new restrictions on legal immigration, allying himself with Donald Trump’s views and bragging that his new stance has been influenced by ultra-hardliners such as Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).  We view both of these Cruz positions as a flip-flop from his previous positions in support a path to legal status but not citizenship, and his support for significantly expanded legal immigration during the 2013 immigration reform debate.  But no matter how you interpret Cruz’s past policy stances, his vision at present is clear – Cruz, who avoids Donald Trump-like bigotry that demonizes entire nationalities and religions, would seek policy outcomes that differ little from those of Trump and his mass deportation vision.

Marco Rubio’s Self-Deportation Stance (With a False Promise of a Path to Citizenship): Rubio has perfected the art of wrapping hardline immigration policies in softer rhetorical packaging.  But once you move past his disciplined talking points and unpack what he’s actually proposing, Rubio favors aggressive enforcement-first policies that would end up looking an awful lot like Ted Cruz’s plan of self-deportation.  Rubio argues for a step-by-step approach that is remarkably similar to the one espoused by Cruz: border security, mandatory E-Verify, entry-exit systems and legal immigration reforms (Rubio supports a shift from family reunification to employer-based immigration, while the new Cruz position wants to restrict even employment-based immigration).  Then, says Rubio, if illegal immigration is “under control” he might support work permits for some of the undocumented.  Naturally, Rubio refuses to specify what “under control” means, and ignores the fact that net migration from Mexico has fallen below zero, as more Mexican immigrants are leaving America than entering.  Then, some ten years after illegal immigration is under control and work permits have been issued, Rubio would maybe, and maybe not, be ready to have a conversation about citizenship.  As MSNBC’s Benny Sarlin recently explained, “no one knows when this 10-year-or-so clock actually begins.  In fact, it’s still not clear when people will gain just temporary protection from deportation, let alone a path to a green card and citizenship.  In an interview last month, Rubio seemed to indicate that he might wait 10 to 12 years before even having a conversation about green cards, a timeline that would punt the issue past his hypothetical presidency entirely.  And every day the enforcement measures, especially provisions that block hiring undocumented immigrants, are in place without some temporary legalization component, then the plan is effectively Mitt Romney’s ‘self-deportation.’” To put it bluntly, Rubio’s “path to citizenship” is, in reality, a path to nowhere.  The idea that his “plan” would result in undocumented immigrants getting citizenship is but a cruel hoax.  Rubio’s “path to citizenship” has more to do with fooling donors and journalists than it does with fixing our broken immigration system.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: “Here’s the most important takeaway from the current GOP debate over immigration.  A party that needs to expand its appeal in a country undergoing a huge demographic transition has lurched to the right in a way that is likely to make it unelectable in the 2016 presidential race.  Mitt Romney learned the hard way.  The RNC learned the hard way.  Smart Republicans such as Lindsey Graham know.  But the Trump effect and the ambitions of two young candidates are cementing the GOP’s reputation as a party hostile to Latinos, Asian-Americans and people of color.  Good luck with that, GOP.”