In a major reversal, Sen. Ted Cruz on Friday proposed new restrictions on legal immigration after previously calling for a massive expansion of visas for foreign workers. In addition, Cruz called for an expanded crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
The move comes as Cruz faces a surprisingly robust challenge to his conservative credentials on immigration from Sen. Marco Rubio, who has argued the two have essentially similar views on the topic — a charge Cruz has called "on-it's-face false."
Under Cruz’s plan, the government would freeze legal immigration levels so long as labor participation rates remain “below historic averages.” Republicans frequently cite low participation rates to undermine Democratic boasts of low unemployment, but it’s not clear what’s causing the shift, raising the possibility of long-term lock. (Aging Boomers, for example, are one big factor.) In addition, Cruz's road map dictates that the government stop issuing H1B visas for 180 days in order to investigate reported abuses of the program. Cruz also called for an end to birthright citizenship.
Like many conservative critics of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Cruz had long rebutted charges of nativism by touting his support for a major expansion of legal immigration. His new tack — and the underlying dynamic driving it — could make the GOP’s already troubled mission to woo Hispanic and Asian voters in immigrant-heavy communities even harder in 2016.
The shift by Cruz, who has long promoted the economic benefits of immigration and previously called for a fivefold increase in H1B visas for highly skilled workers, reflects a changed political climate within the GOP, as hardliners like Donald Trump gain traction with overtly nativist appeals. Sen. Rick Santorum has criticized Cruz this week over his prior calls for more immigrant workers and Trump has also called for new restrictions on green cards and worker visas — with both arguing that migrants steal American jobs and depress wages. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hinted he would do the same before he dropped out of the race.
“There is no stronger advocate for legal immigration in the U.S. Senate than I am,” Cruz told an audience at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event in April.
Cruz boasted at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce question-and-answer session that he had introduced an amendment to the 2013 immigration reform bill that would have expanded the number of H1B visas for high-skilled workers from 65,000 to 325,000 annually. In stark contrast to his concern on Friday that immigrants might "displace American workers," he argued then that the increase would be beneficial.
“The Gang of Eight bill had some positive aspects when it came to H1B visas,” Cruz said at the time. “It increased it from 65,000 to 110,000. The problem is that’s not nearly high enough. That cap had been filled in five days and the data are compelling that every H1B visa holder, every high-tech worker who comes in, produces between 1.7 and 1.8 American jobs. They’re pro-growth.”
As of Friday, Cruz’s own Senate website still touted the 2013 amendments, which it says were designed to “expand green card opportunities” and “increase high-skilled ‘H1B’ visas.” It's notable that the unemployment rate was significantly higher when he first introduced his amendment than it is today.
The H1B amendment attracted little attention on the right at the time, but the issue has since become more politically fraught. In recent months, The New York Times published a series of investigative reports alleging abuses of the H1B system by Disney, Toys R’ Us, and a handful of outsourcing companies at the expense of American workers. Lawmakers have launched investigations into the program in response. At the same time, Trump’s willingness to push the envelope on immigration issues has threatened Cruz’s right flank further.
The senator teed up his new position in an interview with Laura Ingraham earlier this week in which he said he would not pursue an increase in H1B visas in light of the reports, and that he no longer favored an increase in foreign workers immigrating to the U.S. He is currently working on legislation with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading skeptic of legal immigration, to reform the program, though the details of their plan are still not available.
Cruz’s immigration fact sheet included proposals to combat illegal immigration as well, including a border fence, a threefold increase in border patrol agents, and a plan to “increase deportation” of undocumented immigrants.
Notably, it did not say whether Cruz had ruled out legalize undocumented immigrants after security measures were implemented, an issue where he’s been hard to pin down. The question has taken on more prominence since Rubio argued on Thursday that Cruz shares his approach of securing the border and then providing earned legal status.