Ted Cruz vs. Donald Trump: Who's Stronger on Immigration?

An assumption made by a lot of conservatives ever since Trump's recent release of his immigration plan is that, though Trump is clearly creating the most buzz out of all the candidates, Ted Cruz essentially mirrors the bombastic billionaire in his immigration policies.  I saw a recent example of this on Limbaugh's program on August 17, where the talk radio host listed Trump and Cruz as being on the forefront of the anti-amnesty fight and, by implication, that both support the deportation of illegals in this country due to being equally strong on the subject.  I admit that I also had made this assumption previously, since I had forgotten entirely the specifics of Cruz's fight against the Gang of Eight bill.  It is easy to come to this conclusion, after all, when we hear Cruz seemingly lambasting Obama's executive amnesty for shielding illegal aliens from deportation.  However, after reviewing more of Cruz's statements on immigration, I remembered that this isn't really the case.

Technically, Rush is correct that both candidates oppose "amnesty," but how has Ted Cruz actually been defining amnesty all this time?  Cruz has consistently defined amnesty as interchangeable with "a pathway to citizenship."  A good example of this is in this interview with Shark Tank where Cruz frequently moves back and forth between saying he "opposes amnesty" and "opposes a pathway to citizenship," as if they have the same meaning.

It is important to watch Cruz's language in detail here, as it is clear that out of all the candidates, Cruz is the most careful and deliberate in how he uses words (most likely as a result of years of legal training and debate experience).  In Ted Cruz's actual attempted changes to the Gang of Eight bill, which are often characterized as being an example of his anti-amnesty bona fides, what he actually aimed to do was secure legal status for illegals while cutting off a pathway to citizenship. In speeches given on this subject, Cruz has stated that "any bill that this body passes should have border security first and then legalization." In other words, legalization for aliens was never off the table.  He simply wants to make sure no new legalization will be needed in the future.  In the meantime, Cruz simply wants to create a class of individuals with no way to naturalize.

Cruz's opposition to Obama's executive amnesty, in other words, has more to do with the perceived endgame of the Obama administration to grant a pathway to citizenship for illegals.  Cruz, in principle, is okay with letting aliens "come out of the shadows" and gain some kind of legal status.  The NY Times even states that Cruz "noted that he had not called for deportation or, as Mitt Romney famously advocated, self-deportation."  Unfortunately, I was not able to locate the original quote for this paraphrase, and since the NY Times routinely mischaracterizes statements, it is difficult to take this at face value. Nevertheless, the NY Times probably isn't far off in its judgment in the matter, and we actually enter into a strange bizarro world where even Mitt Romney seems farther to the right on immigration than Cruz.  It appears clear that Cruz's position is designed as a compromise between two "extremes."  Either we will have citizens made out of illegals or, God forbid (if you're the GOP Establishment), enforcement of the law, which requires full deportation.  This might have been okay for conservatives in the pre-Trumpian era, but I'm not so sure that's true anymore.

In more recent statements, Cruz, in an interview with Chuck Todd in early July, declared that his first priority is to "secure the borders and solve the problem of illegal immigration.  And then I think we can have a conversation about what to do about the people who remain here.  I don't think the American people will accept any solution until we demonstrate step number one, we can secure the border."  Todd then asks, "So anything's on the table?  Potentially deportation or not deportation, but anything's on the table for the 11 million–?" to which Cruz speedily replies, "I think we should secure the border and then have a conversation at that point."

Pay careful attention here.  Cruz's position is that border security is his priority, but he remains silent on what happens afterwards, exactly in line with his thinking in 2013.  There will be a "conversation" afterward.  Right now he won't talk about it.  But what is there to converse about?  Clearly, legal status for aliens is still on the table, though Cruz clearly and consistently opposes a pathway to citizenship.  When Cruz says things like "legal good, illegal bad," it only refers to his opposition to amnesty according to the definition he has given the word.

The problem, of course, is that Cruz can't really promise that these people will forever be barred from citizenship.  Nor does "legal status" do anything to solve the American jobs problem or the rampant crime that aliens bring with them, as these people – not 11 million, but 30 to 40 million – will still be here enjoying the fruit of their illegality.

It seems that Cruz's compromise position is really just designed to appease conservatives while still keeping the cheap labor proponents at the Chamber of Commerce happy.  What we see here may also become the fallback position of the National Review branch of the Republican party, who generally regard deportation or even self-deportation to be an impossible task, thus necessitating "legal status."