Why Ted Cruz Is Holding Out on Immigration Reform

The Tea Party Republican isn't following the lead of Marco Rubio, Rand Paul.

April 2, 2013, 3:19 PM

April 2, 2013— -- A bevy of Republican officials have come out in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform plan being debated on Capitol Hill, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) isn't one of them.

Popular Tea Party conservative figures, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), are backing a plan that would allow up to 11 million undocumented immigrants to earn their way to citizenship. That has given a burst of political momentum for comprehensive reform, which has long been stalled in Congress.

See Also: 5 GOPers Who've Had an Immigration Conversion

But Cruz so far has not budged from his opposition to an earned path to citizenship, on the grounds that it's tantamount to amnesty.

"I've got deep concerns about is any path to citizenship for those who are here illegally," he said on Sean Hannity's Fox News program on Monday night. "I think that is profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who have followed the rules, who have waited in line."

Cruz has long said that he believes President Obama is insincere about his desire to see immigration reform pass, believing that he's using it as a political cudgel to trap Republicans who are seeking a way to make inroads with Latino voters.

"I think the reason that President Obama is insisting on a path to citizenship is that it is designed to be a poison pill to scuttle the whole bill, so he can have a political issue in 2014 and 2016," he said. "I think that's really unfortunate."

Elected just last November, Cruz has quickly become an influential conservative voice in Congress and he has already attracted 2016 presidential buzz. Latino groups have also closely watched how Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant father and one of two Hispanic Republicans in the Senate, handles the issue. His standing in the party has led immigration-reform proponents to covet his support for a reform package.

Reform backers believe Cruz -- and his fellow Tea Party holdout in the Senate, Mike Lee (Utah) -- could prove to be a linchpin for wooing more Republican votes, which would greatly improve an immigration reform bill's chances of passage.

"I think it's really important for the Tea Party movement, and conservatives in general, for them to be in lockstep on this issue," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which has worked to attract conservative support for immigration reform.

Despite Cruz's staunch opposition to a path to citizenship, Noorani believes Cruz could eventually be convinced to support a bill that would permit undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship. But such a pathway would need to come with pre-conditions, including additional immigration enforcement measures, and a guarantee that the undocumented are not given special preference over other immigrants seeking green cards.

Cruz backs expanding legal immigration, in addition to beefed-up border security and interior enforcement measures.

"I don't get the sense that he is entrenched. I get the sense he is looking to fit his values and his beliefs," Noorani said. "And I think the way the legislation is coming together, it's not going to be a long step for getting Ted Cruz on board."

But it might not be that easy for pro-immigration reform advocates to change Cruz's mind.

The senator has displayed a consistent, rigid opposition to Obama's agenda. That was evident in his blistering criticism of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearings.

"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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