A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Did Cruz Support Legalization?


In one of the more memorable exchanges of the Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio said he was “puzzled” by Sen. Ted Cruz’s attacks on his immigration position, because Cruz himself “supports[s] legalizing people who are in this country illegally.”

Cruz said the claim was “not accurate” and that he has “never supported legalization.”

This is an odd one for a fact-checker to referee. To settle it we would have to know Cruz’s motive for legislation he proposed two years ago.

Back in 2013, Cruz offered an amendment to a Senate immigration bill that would have stripped out a proposal for a path to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally. But Cruz’s amendment would have purposefully left intact the bill’s provisions to provide legal status for them. Numerous media outlets described Cruz’s plan as a compromise “middle road” in the immigration debate that he hoped might be palatable to enough legislators in both houses of Congress to actually pass.

But here’s the thing: Cruz’s campaign says he was bluffing. The true purpose of the amendment, the campaign says, was to expose the real motivations of the bill’s supporters. While those supporters claimed the bill’s aim was to allow 11 million immigrants in the country illegally to come out of the shadows, the Cruz campaign says Cruz was convinced the actual intent was to provide citizenship to those immigrants so they could become future voters. So, the campaign says, Cruz offered the amendment, knowing it would not pass, to show the real priority of supporters. Even if the amendment had been accepted, Cruz still would not have supported the bill, the campaign says, because he opposes legalization.

We can’t guess at Cruz’s political motives. So we’ll just lay out what Cruz said then, and what he’s saying now, and let you, the reader, decide.

From the beginning, Cruz criticized Rubio for cosponsoring S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which provided a “path to citizenship” for those currently in the country illegally. Cruz called it an “amnesty” bill, a label with which we have taken issue.

“As far as Ted’s record, I’m always puzzled by his attack on this issue,” Rubio said during the debate. “Ted, you support legalizing people who are in this country illegally.”

Cruz responded that it is “not accurate what he just said that I supported legalization. Indeed, I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty.”

Rubio, who has since backed away from supporting the Senate immigration bill he once cosponsored, asked Cruz if he would rule out ever legalizing people who are in the country illegally now.

“I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization,” Cruz said. “What you do is you enforce the law.”

Never Supported Legalization?

As proof of the claim that Cruz once supported legalization, the Rubio campaign pointed to an amendment Cruz proposed in 2013 that would have stripped the path to citizenship provision from the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” Senate immigration bill.

In arguing for the amendment at the time, Cruz noted that even with that provision eliminated, other portions of the Senate bill that provide legal resident status would remain, so that in effect his amendment would deny citizenship but allow legalization.

Cruz, May 21, 2013: They would still be eligible for legal status and indeed, under the terms of the bill, they would be eligible for LPR [Lawful Permanent Resident] status as well so that they are out of the shadows, which the proponents of this bill repeatedly point to as their principal objective, to provide a legal status for those who are here illegally to be out of the shadows. This amendment would allow that to happen, but what it would do is remove the pathway to citizenship so that there are real consequences that respect the rule of law and that treat legal immigrants with the fairness and respect they deserve.

Cruz sounded awfully convincing in his speech that this was the position he was advocating.

Cruz, May 21, 2013: And a second point to those advocacy groups that are so passionately engaged. In my view if this committee rejects this amendment —  and I think everyone here views it is quite likely this committee will choose to reject this amendment —  in my view that decision will make it much much more likely that this entire bill will fail in the House of Representatives. I don’t want immigration reform to fail. I want immigration reform to pass. And so I would urge people of good faith on both sides of the aisle if the objective is to pass common sense immigration reform that secures the borders, that improves legal immigration and that allows those who are here illegally to come in out of the shadows, then we should look for areas of bipartisan agreement and compromise to come together. And this amendment, I believe if this amendment were to pass, the chances of this bill passing into law would increase dramatically. And so I would urge the committee to give it full consideration and to adopt the amendment.

And then this:

Cruz, May 21, 2013: Now I would suggest to all of those who passionately want to see this program fixed, that saying it’s all-or-nothing if there’s no path to citizenship, quote, there is no reform, tying immigration reform hostage to a path to citizenship is not a strategy to pass a bill. It’s a strategy to create partisan division. It’s a strategy that may well result in more political battles. But it’s not a strategy to fix the problem and so I would urge everyone on this committee to roll up our sleeves and fix the problem in a humane way that secures the border, gets serious about fixing that problem, that expands and improves legal immigration and that does not unfairly treat legal immigrants by removing a path to citizenship but allowing as this legislation does a legal status for those who are here illegally. That would be reform that a great many people across this country, both Republican and Democrat, would embrace and I would urge the committee to consider the amendment.

On May 31, 2013, in an address at Princeton University alongside his old professor Robert P. George, Cruz said he became convinced that the main objective of Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and others was to achieve a bill that included citizenship, and that Democrats were willing to torpedo the bill if citizenship was off the table.

“And what I believe is happening is that citizenship provision is designed, and the White House knows it’s designed, to be a poison pill in the House to torpedo the bill,” Cruz said, “because then they want to campaign in 2014 and 2016, and say, ‘See those Republicans? They killed immigration reform.’…”

Cruz continued, “I want to see common sense immigration reform pass. But the only way to do so is to find a middle ground, and right now, they’re unwilling to do so.”

George asked if Cruz’s version would pass the House “or would it be killed because it would be proposing ‘amnesty’?”

“I believe that if the amendments I introduced were adopted, that the bill would pass,” Cruz said. “My effort in introducing them was to find a solution that reflected common ground and that fixed the problem.”

Asked in a Texas Tribune interview in 2013 if he worried that some might consider his proposal amnesty, Cruz said it was a compromise position. “I have said from the very beginning that I believe in compromise,” Cruz told the Tribune. “Ronald Reagan said, ‘What do you do if you are offered half a loaf?’ Answer? You take it. And then you come back for more.”

The bill, with a path to citizenship provision, passed the Senate, but died because the House refused to take it up.

In March, in an interview with MSNBC, a Cruz campaign spokeswoman still described the amendment to the Senate bill as an attempt “to improve a very bad bill” that he opposed.

Proving a Point?

Despite those statements in support of the amendment, Cruz’s campaign says Cruz never actually supported backing the immigration bill if his amendment had passed. Rather, a spokesman says, his amendment was offered to “prove a point.”

“Ted Cruz was pointing out that the proponents of the immigration bill have repeatedly claimed their ‘principle objective’ was to guarantee LPR [Lawful Permanent Resident] status and bring people out of the shadows,” Cruz campaign spokesman Brian Phillips told us via email. “If that were true, Cruz argued, they should have no objection to removing the pathway to citizenship since Cruz’s amendment doesn’t address the very thing they said they wanted most. That is not tantamount to saying Cruz supports LPR status and he never supported the underlying bill. Cruz is purposely isolating citizenship to prove a point.

“Cruz’s strategy here is to expose that the proponent’s real goal is not to provide legal status as they claimed, but, in fact, to guarantee those here illegally a pathway to citizenship,” Phillips stated. “That every Democrat and member of the Gang of 8 voted to oppose Cruz’s amendment proves their claims about the ‘principle objective’ were false. They were unwilling to give up citizenship to get what they claimed they wanted because citizenship was the whole point of the Gang of Eight bill.”

Can Phillips point to any instances in which Cruz tipped his hand that this was not a plan he actually proposed, but was a legislative strategy to make a point?

Well, no, Phillips said. “We were not trying to let on our legislative strategy.”

We couldn’t find any instances of Cruz explicitly saying that he opposed legalization, either before or after the amendment (until, of course, the debate on Dec. 15). On the campaign trail, Cruz has not been particularly forthcoming about what specifically he would do in regard to the immigrants in the country illegally. On most occasions when asked about it, Cruz simply answered that that was an issue that could only be taken up after the border is secured.

And so his comment during the debate that “I do not intend to support legalization” was his most definitive answer to the question to date.

Indeed, in the immigration plan outlined on Cruz’s campaign website, there is no mention of legalization for those currently in the country illegally. To the contrary, the plan states Cruz’s commitment to “[r]estore our commitment to enforcement and public safety and the Rule of Law by rededicating DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to fully enforcing the law, including through deportations and returns.”

In an interview after the debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper again asked what Cruz would do with those currently living in the country illegally.

“I would enforce the law,” Cruz said, stopping short of endorsing plans like Trump’s to deport all people living in the country illegally. “And existing law provides what you do. You start by securing the borders, so you’re not — if you have a sinking ship, the first thing you do is fill the hole so that you don’t have people coming back in. The second thing you do is you start deporting illegal, criminal illegal aliens.”

Cruz has certainly been consistent in his opposition to a path to citizenship for those now living in the country illegally. And he now says definitely that he also would not support legalization of those immigrants. And as we said earlier, we’ll leave it up to you to decide if he once supported legalization as a political compromise, and now disavows it, or if he was merely employing a legislative ploy to expose the motivations of his opponents.