Ted Cruz loves legal immigrants. Except when he hates them.
Thus—as a post-game interview with Jake Tapper after last night’s debate suggested—he’s having a little trouble explaining exactly where he comes down on immigrants who actually play by the rules.
“If someone is here illegally and apprehended, they will be sent back to their home country,” he said. “It’s critical. I’m also a big advocate of welcoming and celebrating legal immigrants. And I think most Americans agree with the principle legal: good, illegal: bad.”
But here’s the hiccup: Cruz struggles mightily to decide whether or not he actually agrees with that principle.
On one hand, Cruz—like many immigration hardliners—wants to stop illegal immigration. But he also wants restrictions on legal immigrants and that’s where threading the needle gets tricky on an issue he can’t afford to mess up.
The senator, like every single other politician in America, talks differently depending on what audience he’s addressing. But, unlike some of those other folks, the Texas senator comes perilously close—if not slightly over the line—to taking multiple positions on this issue, the single most contentious of the campaign.
And just like he said one thing about Donald Trump behind closed doors and another on the debate stage, he changes his immigration tune at breakneck speed.
But unlike his personal assessment of Trump’s character, his views on immigration policy—namely, whether legal immigration is good or bad—actually matter as the debate over the border and who is allowed to comes across becomes increasingly important in the Republican field. And he’s bending over backwards to make them totally unclear.
Speaking broadly, there are two schools of thought on the right regarding immigration, and they’re locked in a death match.
And Cruz is trying to be in both—which is damn near impossible without a little bit of dishonesty one way or the other.
The camp basically holds that immigration is a net positive, that it helps the economy, that it’s necessary for the social safety net, and that we need more of it. People in that school of thought also hold that immigration needs to be legal and that the border needs to be enforced more militantly. Proponents of this approach have the backing of most establishment Republicans as well as groups like the Chamber of Commerce.
The pockets are deep in the ‘net positive’ crowd, but the grassroots mobilization is firmly in the second group.
The camp of Republicans worries that both low-skill and high-skill immigrants will depress wages for American workers, and argue that we need way more deportations. The most staunch advocates of this view are Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Rep. Steve King of Iowa, and they are superhumanly consistent about it.
Cruz’s immigration plan falls squarely in the restrictionist camp. He doesn’t go full Donald Trump, but he gets pretty close. Cruz opposes any increase in legal immigration levels as long as the country’s unemployment rate is “unacceptably high.” And he wants to make H-1B visas—visas that get high-skilled workers into the U.S.—only available to people with advanced degrees. He also committed to increasing deportations, building a few hundred miles of wall along the border with Mexico, and undoing the president’s executive orders shielding some non-criminal immigrants from immigration.
National Review reported that the senator consulted with Sessions while he was putting together his plan.
Rick Tyler, a spokesperson for Cruz’s campaign, told NR that Sessions was a helpful voice for their team.
“The presidential candidates seeking the Republican nomination should listen to Jeff Sessions,” he said.
“Senator Cruz has worked with him on a number of immigration-reform bills and will continue to consult with him,” Tyler added.
The reality, though, is that in the school of thought on immigration that Cruz has embraced, that isn’t the view—not even a little bit. If you think high-skilled immigrants steal workers’ jobs and low-skilled immigrants depress workers’ wages and Muslim immigrants put us in danger and non-English-fluent immigrants undermine our national culture, then you have to do some serious rhetorical gymnastics to say you think legal immigration is good.
But that doesn’t mean Cruz isn’t going to give it a try.