Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz's office on Friday indicated the Texas senator remains open to a path to legal status for undocumented workers, putting him at odds with conservatives who deride such a position as unacceptable "amnesty."
Cruz opposed the Senate bipartisan immigration bill and its proposed path to citizenship that passed in 2013, but he also indicated to The Texas Tribune that year that he supported giving some undocumented immigrants permission to stay in the country with more limited legal status. He noted that an amendment he had filed to strip the Senate legislation of its citizenship component deliberately "did not change the underlying work permit from the [bill]" that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the country without fear of deportation.
Cruz has almost never discussed his support for legalization since then, instead focusing his public statements on passing border security legislation and making changes to the legal immigration system first. In early 2014, he decried a short-lived proposal by House GOP leaders that granted legal status -- but not necessarily citizenship -- to certain immigrants as “amnesty for those here illegally.”
More, recently Cruz has helped lead the charge in Congress against what he calls Obama's "illegal executive amnesty" which would grant temporary work permits to undocumented immigrants. He's even threatening a government shutdown to block the measure.
Asked by msnbc about where Cruz stands now on legalization, campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said that the senator has been "consistent" and confirmed that the views he expressed in the Tribune had not changed. She described his amendment to the Senate "gang of eight" bill as an effort "to improve a very bad bill" that he ultimately opposed.
While Frazier said Cruz fought the bill's path to citizenship because it "flies in the face of the rule of law," she declined to apply the same label when asked about legal status in the right circumstances.
"I think his main priority is dealing with the border security component and making sure that we know who is coming into the country and making sure that we have control over who is coming into the country and then we can deal with what to do with the people who are already here," she said.
Her comments come a day after rival GOP contender Scott Walker renounced his past support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants after previously expressing support for the idea.
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Cruz's position on legal status for undocumented immigrants would put him (on paper at least) just a little closer to Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate most overtly pro-immigration reform, who has floated legal status short of citizenship as a possible legislative compromise. It also bears similarities to another potential 2016 contender, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the co-sponsors of the bipartisan Senate bill. Rubio has since renounced his old legislation in favor of a piecemeal approach that starts with border security and enforcement legislation before moving on to any legalization component.
The idea anyone could get to the right of Cruz on immigration, who has repeatedly threatened to shut down the government to defund Obama’s “illegal executive amnesty” might come as a surprise. But by the terms of the immigration debate set out so far, his bona fides could absolutely come into question. Many conservatives, including the leading anti-immigration groups, consider any policy that falls short of deportation "amnesty." It's this fundamental divide, far more than any argument over legalization vs. citizenship, that has paralyzed GOP attempts at immigration reform.
“The baseline is anything that lets illegal aliens stay illegally,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reducing immigration levels, told msnbc. “Anything else is word games.”
Krikorian told msnbc Cruz's position easily fits the bill.
“It’s the same thing: ‘I’m against amnesty, but amnesty doesn’t include giving people work permits,’” Krikorian said. “Really? Then Obama didn't give amnesty to all those people."
Pro-reform Republicans object to this definition, however, arguing that "amnesty" means offering legal status to immigrants without conferring any penalties. This lack of an clear definition of amnesty, beyond "thing conservatives don't like," can create a lot of confusion in trying to tease out candidate's positions.
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Cruz's views are likely to come under greater scrutiny now that he's an official presidential candidate. Anti-immigration group NumbersUSA published a blog post on Thursday calling attention to this little-discussed part of Cruz’s legislative history, writing that he “opposes citizenship but supports work permits for illegal aliens." It has since been removed. Roy Beck, executive director for NumbersUSA, told msnbc that the post published prematurely and was meant for a larger evaluation of the whole presidential field. He said Cruz had typically sided with the group on most issues, but was eager to learn more about his position on legalization.
"Work permits are the one thing we feel is most harmful," Beck said. "We will be rating [Cruz] on that. I would say at this point he's got a pretty good record, but there is some uncertainty."
The American Immigration Council published a pro-reform piece this week noting that, beyond opposing citizenship and Obama's executive actions on immigration, his positions are still unclear.
Almost every likely Republican 2016 candidate has at least flirted with immigration reform in the past and will face pressure to follow Walker’s lead and renounce past support for a path to citizenship before the race is over. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul both backed a path to citizenship in 2013, for example, though Paul didn’t like to call it that and both opposed the bipartisan Senate bill. Mike Huckabee recently defended his support for granting citizenship to young undocumented immigrants, commonly known as DREAMers.