Why Ted Cruz Is Holding Out on Immigration Reform

"If you know anything about Ted Cruz, he's a big believer in defending the Constitution and the rule of law," said Texas-based GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. "It's very understandable coming from his viewpoint."

Cruz also must take political considerations into account. Backing a pathway to citizenship could pose a political risk in the deep-red state of Texas. A majority of Americans back a pathway to citizenship, according to polls. But a February survey conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune showed that six-in-ten Texas Republicans oppose a path, including third-quarters of self-identified Tea Partiers.

"It's still probably safer politically to be opposed to the Rubio plan in Texas," Mackowiak added. "Texas is still really a one-party state. The political downside is a primary from the conservative side."

But in Texas, the immigration issue is more complex than that.

The state has its fair share of immigration firebrands, but it's also home to several moderates, including Reps. Sam Johnson (R) and John Carter (R), who are negotiating an immigration bill in the House. Last decade, Texas passed one of the first state "DREAM Acts" in the country, which allows undocumented students to seek in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. And last year, a group of Republicans successfully included a guest-worker program in the state party's platform for the first time in its history.

One of the leaders of that effort, restaurateur Brad Bailey, said that conservatives in Texas need to educate other conservatives on the issue to begin changing minds.

"I've literally spoken to some pretty hardcore conservative groups in some places in Texas where you would never talk about immigration," he said. "And every single one of the groups I talked to, they're angry in the beginning. But they come up afterwards and say, 'Well, this makes sense.'"

Bailey, who backs a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, says Cruz could benefit from hearing such a talk.

"So many politicians, including Sen. Cruz, say it's not fair to be cutting in line," he said. "There is no line. The line is a figment of everyone's imagination. Our system is broken."

Republican immigration opponents also must consider the long-term political impact of the immigration debate. National Democrats recently launched a group called Battleground Texas with the goal of eventually turning the state blue, with the help of a fast-growing Latino population.

But what could make the difference for Cruz and other conservatives when it comes time to vote is how the immigration debate becomes defined in the public eye.

"Every politician who votes on this is going to have to ask [himself] whether it fits into their prism of amnesty," Mackowiak said. "Rubio and Paul believe you can make a case that an earned path to citizenship cannot qualify as amnesty. You can make the case it's not amnesty. But just because Rubio and Paul share that view doesn't mean that Cruz will."

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