Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said on Tuesday that he does not plan on ever supporting a pathway to citizenship or legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
"I have never supported legalization and I do not intend to support legalization," Cruz said during the final GOP presidential debate of the year in Las Vegas.
It's the furthest that Cruz has gone in outlining whether he would allow more than 11 million undocumented immigrants to continue living in the U.S. through an earned pathway to citizenship or legalization.
For years, Cruz has managed to avoid specifics. He has railed against so-called "amnesty" while also calling for stepped up enforcement at the border. But it has remained unclear what plan the freshman senator would support once illegal immigration levels are sufficiently brought down.
And some observers thought he still left himself some wiggle room tonight. "Cruz's 'do not intend' answer is testament to a truly fine legal education," National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted.
Sen. Marco Rubio has tried to walk a similar tightrope by avoiding having to detail an timeline of what legalization would look like under his administration, how long it would take and whether it would ultimately end with citizenship.
"I am personally open after all that has happened and after ten years in probationary status, I am open to a green card," Rubio said.
Rubio has tried desperately to outrun his record on immigration from when he served as a chief architect to the Senate's "Gang of Eight" behind comprehensive immigration reform. Legislation eventually died in 2013 but the problems for Rubio carried on. It's a key point of vulnerability for the Florida senator in the midst of a crowded Republican field that has pushed further and further to the right on immigration.
"If we want to defend the country, we have to defend against who's coming in, and Marco is -- has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and to the liberals than he does to conservative policy," Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said on Tuesday.
The issue of legalization versus citizenship has been a big sticking point over how top GOP contenders plan to deal with the millions of families that have settled in the U.S. and planted firm roots in major communities. But omitting any option for legalization, as Cruz is leaving on the table, could have major implications. It would effectively mean either deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants or allowing them to remain in the legal limbo they're currently living in today.
Other ripple effects could expend far beyond 2016, particularly by threatening the Republican Party's ability to remain competitive if they hope to win without the support of the fastest growing voting block -- Latinos.