Key Immigration Reformers Cast Doubt On Cruz’s ‘Poison Pill’ Account

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As the battle rages over whether Sen. Ted Cruz has flip-flopped on immigration, key figures involved in the 2013 reform movement — including a Republican senator — expressed skepticism of the account Cruz is giving now.

“It’s total bullshit,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of the immigrant-rights group America’s Voice, said of Cruz’s current version of events.

The Rubio-Cruz tussle over immigration has been ongoing throughout the GOP primary campaign but flared up during Tuesday’s GOP debate on CNN. Rubio is politically vulnerable among conservatives because he supported comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country. Cruz has long dismissed that as “amnesty”. The Rubio counter-strategy — which he used again during the debate — has been to try to turn the tables by suggesting that Cruz was much closer to his own position than Cruz is willing to admit, including having sponsored an amendment in 2013 to let undocumented immigrants receive legal status but not citizenship.

Over the ensuing 48 hours, Cruz has largely been on the defensive. He claims the amendment Rubio is chiding him for was a “poison pill” meant to smoke out Democrats and kill the overall bill.

In interviews with TPM Thursday, Sharry and other reformers said they did not believe Cruz’s amendment to the so-called Gang of Eight bill was the “poison pill” Cruz is making it out to be now. They suggested that, at the time, it seemed Cruz was seeking to position himself as a conservative still open to reform and has since moved to the right in order to court the anti-immigrant vote.

“He was getting to the right of Rubio and trying to set himself as a reformer to the right of the others,” Sharry said, rejecting the notion that Cruz was aligned with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and other hardliners whose opposition to immigration Cruz is embracing now.

“Cruz got to Rubio’s right but didn’t want to be in the rejectionist camp,” Sharry said. He pointed to Cruz’s vote against an amendment offered by Sessions at the time that would restrict legal immigration, an approach Cruz favors now.

“Ted Cruz voted against the vision of immigration reform that he now embraces,” Sharry said.

Key to making sense of Cruz’s political calculus is to remember the landscape of immigration reform at the time. Republicans had taken a shellacking in the 2012 election, where their unpopularity with Hispanics was a major factor. Immigration reform was viewed as inevitable and crucial to the GOP’s future electoral viability. The major question for the party was how conservative that reform effort was going to be.

“There weren’t many at that point who were taking the position that there could be no way to obtain any legal status. The question is: I — like Sen. Rubio — have always felt that if you are going to be here for 20 years then you ought to have the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “I have always been for a path to citizenship, but the others that took the other position were saying ‘No, they should never be able to obtain citizenship’, and I understand that position but to say now that is not what you wanted …”

Flake trailed off there.

The Cruz campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Back then, being a pro-immigration reform conservative didn’t necessarily make you the RINO it does now, reformers told TPM, and the debate was over the nitty gritty details of a comprehensive reform bill, not whether it would happen at all. In the end comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate but died in the House.

“Most of us had not anticipated how far the center of gravity has shifted in the GOP,” Sharry said of Cruz’s and Rubio’s stances back then. “They thought both of those positions could be defended as the party and debate evolved.”

Tamar Jacoby, president of the industry-backed advocacy group ImmigrationWorks USA, agreed with Sharry’s interpretation that Cruz was positioning himself at the time to the right of Rubio, but still open to reform.

“I think he wanted to have to have it both ways,” Jacoby told TPM. “He wanted to say he was for immigration but, ‘I just don’t want this bill.'”

Flake was a little more coy when asked if he believed Cruz’s amendment was a poison pill or if he truly believed it would make the legislation more likely to pass:

“Well. He said at the time and I will take him at his word,” Flake said. “I will just take his public statement.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), meanwhile, has been a little less couched than Flake, telling the Guardian Cruz has “done a remarkable 180.”

At the time, Cruz made an impassioned speech in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee defending his measure. He said that his amendment would make the larger legislation more likely to pass while still allowing “those who are here illegally to come in out of the shadows.”

That’s a far cry from the line Cruz is sticking with now, as he put it at Tuesday’s debate: “I have never supported legalization and I don’t intend to support legalization.”

Sharry was in the room for the 2013 speech. He said, then and now, Cruz’s positioning on the issue of the legal status was always about 2016.

“He wasn’t speaking to the room, he was laying down tracks for his presidential campaign,” he said.

“It was so clear that Cruz and Rubio were sizing each other up for what they knew was going to be confrontation in the primary.”

Lauren Fox contributed to this report.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.

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