CONCORD, New Hampshire — The rising campaigns of Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio are converging this week in a long-anticipated debate over immigration.
Cruz is trying to differentiate himself among conservatives by reminding voters about Rubio’s bipartisan immigration bill, which would have put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.
But Cruz has vulnerabilities on the issue with the hard-line right as well. On Thursday, Rubio made the case that the two candidates' positions were similar, citing amendments Cruz offered that would have expanded legal immigration and allowed work permits and green cards for undocumented immigrants — a position many anti-immigration activists consider “amnesty.”
“Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally,” Rubio told reporters at an event in South Carolina on Thursday. “In fact, when the Senate bill was proposed, he proposed giving them work permits. He’s also supported a massive expansion of the green cards. He’s supported a massive expansion of the HB-1 program, a 500% increase.”
Rubio added: “I don't think our positions are dramatically different.”
Rubio’s remarks came a day after Cruz delivered a pointed barb in New Hampshire after MSNBC asked him whether their current positions — secure the border first, then discuss what to do with undocumented immigrants — were roughly similar.
“It is not complicated that on the seminal fight over amnesty in Congress, the Gang of Eight bill that was the brainchild of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama, that would have granted amnesty to 12 million people here illegally, that I stood with the American people and led the fight to defeat it in the United States Congress,” Cruz said.
In an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, Cruz also called out Rubio for opposing amendments to require more stringent border security targets before undocumented immigrants could achieve legal status.
“He opposed every single one of them — every single amendment,” Cruz said.
Rubio did support an amendment that passed, however, that would have doubled the size of the border patrol, among other features.
The question of whether to allow undocumented immigrants to achieve some measure of legal status has bitterly divided the party for years and the current faceoff is drawing the entire field into the debate.
On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul accused Rubio of handing out "welfare" to undocumented immigrants with his tax plan, which expands refundable tax credits to Americans in general. Under current IRS rules, immigrant are eligible for tax refunds regardless of legal status. A spokesman for Sen. Rick Santorum, who has called for reducing immigration across the board, sent an email to reporters accusing Cruz of "amnesty double-talk."
Cruz has brought up the immigration issue — and his strong opposition to "amnesty" — often in recent weeks while showering praise on Donald Trump for firing up conservatives with his unforgiving stance.
But Cruz is not Trump on the issue. Unlike the billionaire mogul, he has not called for deporting immigrants en masse or ruled out legalizing them down the line. And while Trump has called for a freeze on legal immigration that he believes depresses wages, Cruz previously supported a major increase in visas for economic migrants as a means to spur growth for American businesses.
During the 2013 immigration debate, Cruz introduced an amendment that would have barred undocumented immigrants for citizenship, but still allowed them to receive work permits under the bill and even green cards if Rubio's bill passed.
“Its important to note … that under the existing bill, if my amendment had been adopted, those who are here illegally would be eligible for what’s called RPI status, a legal status, and indeed in time would be eligible for legal permanent residency,” Cruz said in a 2013 floor speech that caught the attention of conservative outlet The Right Scoop at the time.
Cruz added in the same speech that his amendment was “critical to passing this bill.”
In a separate committee hearing on the bill, he said the amendment would bring immigrants “out of the shadows” and warned that, if it was rejected, it would make it hard to pass the overall package in the House. “I don’t want immigration reform to fail, I want immigration reform to pass,” Cruz said.
A spokesman for Cruz, Catherine Frazier, said that Rubio’s statement on legalization was “simply false” and that Cruz’s amendment “pointed out the hypocrisy of the Democrats who all along denied that this bill was solely about a path to citizenship.”
“Sen. Cruz has made it abundantly clear that we cannot address what to do with those currently here illegally until we secure the border and congress verifies it is secure,” Frazier said. “The amendments he presented were an effort to improve a fundamentally flawed bill - to stop illegal immigration and champion legal immigration. Once the Gang of Eight voted in lock step with the Democrats to block several Republicans' efforts to fix the legislation, Ted Cruz led the fight to defeat the bill, exposed it for the amnesty that it was, which is why the House ultimately never took it up and it never passed Congress.”
As the above statement indicated, Cruz has not indicated what he would do with undocumented immigrants once the border was secure, leaving the door open to legal status. But his campaign spokesman Rick Tyler appeared to come closer to ruling out legalization in a separate exchange with NBC News.
"Amnesty is offering a pathway to citizenship or legalization for people who have broken the law,” Tyler said.
As Rubio brought up, Cruz also submitted an amendment in 2013 that would have dramatically expanded legal immigration by increasing the cap on H1B visas for high-skilled workers five-fold from 65,000 to 325,000 per year.
At the time, proposals like the Cruz amendment were less controversial: Republicans opposed to legalizing undocumented immigrants frequently cited support for increased legal immigration as a shield against accusations of nativism. Since then, however, candidates like Trump have gained ground by calling for restrictions on legal immigration as well, and Cruz has adopted part of their rhetoric by complaining undocumented immigrants take jobs and lower income for native-born workers. In addition, a series of news reports on allegations of companies exploiting the H1B system have garnered attention in conservative media.
On Wednesday, a supporter at a New Hampshire town hall told Cruz a relative was concerned about his record on the issue. A handful of attendees muttered “Disney” in response, a reference to reports that Disney laid off workers while bringing in foreign employees on temporary work visas.
Cruz, aware of the concerns, has taken efforts protect his right flank. He told the woman who asked the question that he was working on legislation with Sen. Jeff Sessions — a leading critic of legal immigration levels — to curb abuses. Frazier told MSNBC that the details were still being worked out.
The senator himself went further in an interview with Ingraham, saying he would not pursue an increase in H1B visas as president in light of recent news. Ingraham follow up by asking more generally whether he would support “increasing the number of foreign workers” once elected.
“I don't believe that's a good idea,” he said.