ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz on Friday vowed to suspend a program that gives work visas to highly skilled immigrants, reversing his position on the program as part of an aggressive immigration plan designed to appeal to the GOP's most conservative wing.
Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, wants to dramatically increase deportations, add hundreds of miles to the wall on the Mexican border and reverse every immigration order signed by President Barack Obama — including one that defers enforcement for many children of immigrants in the country illegally.
"A steady flow of illegal immigrants coming in, driving down wages, impacts the wages of just about every person here," Cruz told hundreds of cheering supporters gathered in an Orlando megachurch Friday afternoon. Aside from the economic impact of illegal immigration, Cruz warned that a porous southern border makes the nation vulnerable to Islamic State fighters and deadly diseases like Ebola.
The first-term Texas senator would also triple the number of border patrol agents, increase aerial surveillance around the border and finish a biometric tracking system for immigrants entering the country legally. Cruz's campaign did not detail the cost of his proposals when asked.
The release comes as he intensifies his play for the GOP's most conservative voters, a group that has so far favored businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. The outsider candidates have a huge lead in the race with voting set to begin in less than three months.
The issue also allows Cruz to distinguish himself from pragmatic-minded Republican rivals such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, two Florida-based candidates who support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Without naming them, Cruz said each of his Republican opponents in Tuesday's debate "composed an epic poem in support of amnesty, explaining how compassionate and loving it is."
"There is nothing compassionate about a politician saying, 'I'm so compassionate I'm willing to give away your job,'" Cruz charged.
Cruz's position on high-skilled visas represents a complete about-face on one of his long-held immigration stances.
During the Senate immigration debate two years ago, the Texas senator was an outspoken advocate for increasing legal immigration, particularly for highly skilled immigrants. He called legal immigration "a pillar of our nation's heritage and strength" and introduced amendments to double the cap on legal immigration and increase the number of high-skilled immigrant visas by 500 percent.
On Friday, he promised to suspend the H1-B program for 180 days to investigate — and prosecute — potential abuse. He said he changed his position after learning that some companies, including nearby Disney World, might be abusing the program.
Such visas are largely used for high-tech firms and so-called STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — jobs. Many Republican lawmakers have complained that U.S. companies use the visa program to hire foreign workers at lower wages than a U.S. citizen would be entitled to.
Cruz's plan doesn't explicitly say what he would do with the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
His plan would, however, sharply increase enforcement and roll back moves by the Obama administration to defer action in some cases.
He said a Cruz administration would end the "catch-and-release" program that currently doesn't immediately deport all immigrants caught crossing the border illegally. He would also immediately identify and deport immigrants convicted of crimes.
Cruz announced his immigration plan ahead of a possible Senate vote next week on an immigration bill he's been pushing to boost penalties for immigrants who illegally re-enter the country after getting deported. The bill, Kate's Law, is named for a woman shot in San Francisco by an immigrant in the country illegally.
Senate Democratic aides said they'd been alerted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office of possible floor action on the legislation as early as next week, though McConnell's spokesman said no decisions on timing had been made.
While Cruz laughed off Rubio's suggestion from a day earlier that the two senators hold similar stances on immigration, Rubio didn't back down on Friday.
The Florida senator argued that Cruz, like him, supported a legal status for those in the country illegally. Rubio would go farther and allow citizenship, but either position is dismissed as "amnesty" by immigration hard-liners.
"The point I was making is I'm surprised by his criticism given that fact that his record on immigration, quite frankly, is not substantially different than mine," Rubio said.
Caldwell reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.