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It's On: Cruz, Rubio Trade Blows in Immigration Slugfest

In my recent, somewhat skeptical analysis of the increasingly prevalent "Rubio vs. Cruz" narrative, I mentioned that should that dynamic take shape down the stretch, immigration is sure to emerge as a major focal point. As fate would have it, the issue bubbled to the surface almost immediately, with the two Senators' camps exchanging barbs late last week. Cruz fired the first shot, 
laying into Rubio's record on Laura Ingraham's radio show.  Rubio, clearly prepared for this line of attack, calmly feigned puzzlement over Cruz's broadside.  Why is he attacking me when he also favors a path to permanent legal status for millions of illegal immigrants?  Wait a minute. Is that true of Cruz?  Let's go to the audio and video tape:

The eleven million people who are here illegally would be granted legal status once the border is secure...and indeed, they would be eligible for permanent legal residency."

That was Cruz back in 2013, during the Senate's debate over the so-called Gang of Eight's fatally flawed comprehensive immigration reform bill, of which Marco Rubio was a chief architect.  Rubio's legislation called for simultaneous mass legalization and border enforcement measures (legalization first, in practice) and an eventual path to citizenship.  Cruz, by contrast, was effectively advocating a path to permanent legal status, not citizenship, which would only open up after the southern border had been certified as secure.  His campaign is offering a technical denial on this point, but his words above aren't ambiguous. Nevertheless, these amount to significant policy differences, yet Rubio is arguing that he and his GOP rival are more or less on the same page. "Ted's position on immigration is not much different than mine. He is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. If he's changed that position, then he certainly has a right to change his position on that issue, but he should be clear about that," he
said on Friday.

Cruz responded by "laughing out loud" at the notion that he and Rubio's immigration stances are remotely similar.  Plus, a campaign spokesman says, the clips above feature Cruz promoting a strategic amendment aimed at defeating "Schubio's" bill. The aide explained that Cruz was simply offering supporters of the bill an opportunity to allow illegals to emerge "from the shadows" with a promise of legalization -- after border security metrics were met -- but without the promise of full citizenship. So the goal was to expose Democratic co-sponsors' overriding political priorities, as opposed to responsible governance.  (Now seems like as good a time as any to briefly note that Democrats did precisely nothing on immigration reform when they controlled the presidency and dominated both houses of Congress for two full years at the beginning of Obama's first term).  In other words, Cruz's amendment was illustrative in nature, not a reflection of the Senator's actual views on what to do about the millions of people in the country illegally. But is that explanation accurate?  Not according to...Ted Cruz. Here's what he told Byron York at the time:

“In introducing amendments, what I endeavored to do was improve that bill so that it actually fixes the problem...I think an overwhelming majority of Americans in both parties wants to see our broken immigration system fixed, wants to see the problem solved, the border secured, and our remaining a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants. Given that bipartisan agreement outside of Washington, my objective was not to kill immigration reform but to amend the Gang of Eight bill so that it actually solves the problem rather than making the problem worse.”

His amendments were not strategic maneuvers to expose ulterior motives; they were genuine solutions to solve the problem. So doesn't that mean Cruz is on the record in favor of mass legalization?  No way, his camp now insists.  Okay, then what is Cruz's plan for handling the vast majority of the otherwise law-abiding 11 million illegal immigrants already living in America? Well,he won't say:

His new plan is conspicuously silent on that central question, although it's packed with other specifics, including a stark reversal on legal immigration.  Until last week, Cruz had positioned himself as a fervent supporter of expanding and streamlining legal immigration, including proposing a massive expansion of the H1B visa program -- much larger, in fact, than the Gang of Eight requested.  He's now calling for a temporary moratorium on the program altogether, pointing to reports of abuses within the system as his rationale.  In a more dramatic shift, Cruz's new vision would bar any increase in legal immigration until the low US workforce participation rate improves to meet historic averages.  In the recent past, Cruz has described legal immigration as a job-creating, "pro growth" phenomenon. Hmm.  Cruz, who seems a bit stung and surprised by Rubio's brazen immigration parry, has lashed out with 
several unfortunate analogies involving his Floridian rival and Iran's Ayatollah. Between that uncharitable formulation and his revamped platform, it's "hard to believe [Cruz's new posture is] not a quick reaction to Rubio accusing him of having essentially the same stance on immigration. Cruz is searching here for a way to accentuate the differences, knowing that he’s in trouble if Trump voters decide that Rubio’s right about their similarities," Allahpundit concludes.  Team Rubio was shrewd to knock Cruz back on his heels by exploiting his apparent "path to legalization" position, and by pressuring him to address a question he obviously doesn't want to answer.  We understand that you didn't like Marco's (since renounced) solution to an entrenched problem, Senator, but what's your viable alternative?  And are you now abandoning the very policies you proposed to 'fix' Marco's bill?  Smart play.

But surely Rubio's campaign is well aware that their guy remains hyper-vulnerable over the Gang of Eight gambit.  No matter how they spin and muddy the waters on the relative differences and similarities between Rubio and Cruz's various positions, the latter strenuously opposed the controversial bill, while the former helped write and advocate for it.  At issue are (a) Rubio's judgment in trusting the likes of Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin to negotiate a strong deal in good faith, (b) Rubio's wisdom in championing a massive "comprehensive" federal bill -- jammed with many complex moving parts -- 
on the heels of the Obamacare meltdown, and (c) Rubio's audacious flip-flops on the 'path to citizenship' issue.  The Florida Senator has now held three distinct positions on that question in five years.  At the moment, he favors creating a path to citizenship for non-criminal illegal immigrants as a stand-alone law after other piecemeal enforcement-minded reforms are implemented and succeeding.  A few years ago, he was on board with the Gang's legalization-first regime.  And before that? Just watch:

The cleanest hit for Cruz here is to make the case that Rubio betrayed Floridian voters after promising he'd oppose "amnesty" (Rubio's word, in this context), demonstrated bad tactical judgment by jumping into bed with Democrats on the issue, and bad strategic judgment by pursuing a comprehensive federal "solution" at a time when the government's competency was lacking to the point of embarrassment.  Rubio's best retort is to evince contrition and to continue to get under Cruz's skin by pointing to evidence that their immigration platforms aren't terribly dissimilar -- or weren't, at least, until Cruz suddenly adopted a much harder line.  I'm not the only guy who changes his mind, right Ted?  If Cruz is going to pummel Rubio over supporting a legal path to citizenship, Rubio should demand that Cruz clearly explain his own position on what to do about those millions of illegal immigrants who are already here.  And Cruz knows full well that a noisy element's zeal notwithstanding, "deport 'em" 
isn't a realistic or winning answer:

In light of the Paris attack and its enormous implications, last week's immigration dust-up has receded from the fore.  But make no mistake: It'll be back with a vengeance before long, especially if Cruz and Rubio appear to be on a collision course for the Republican nomination.

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