Ever since the summer of 2013, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have been circling around each other on immigration, understanding that their conflicting positions and competing ambitions required an eventual collision. Rubio’s role in passing the bipartisan Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill was a political risk that, owing to the efforts of Republicans like Cruz, blew up in his face, forcing him to retreat into a more hardline stance to make amends with the party’s conservative ranks. With both men seeking the Republican presidential nomination, it was inevitable that Cruz would move to corner Rubio and exploit his vulnerability on the issue – the only question was when it would happen.
That question was answered at Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate, when Cruz went hard at Rubio for lining up with Democrats to support “amnesty” in 2013. “There was a time for choosing as Reagan put it,” Cruz said. “Where there was a battle over amnesty and some chose, like Senator Rubio to stand with Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer and support a massive amnesty plan.” Rubio had his response ready to go. He explained that the “lesson” he learned from the comprehensive immigration reform failure was that “there is no trust that the Federal Government will enforce the law.” And he rebutted Cruz’s accusation that he supported “amnesty” by pointing out that Cruz “support[s] legalizing people who are in this country illegally. Ted Cruz supported a 500-percent increase in the number of H-1 visas, the guest workers that are allowed into this country, and Ted supports doubling the number of green cards.”
There’s a lot going on here and several different layers of cynical manipulation to unpack, so let’s dive in. Rubio’s explanation that he learned the hard lesson that the government can’t be trusted is nonsense. His role within the Gang of Eight was to convince Republicans that the legislation’s enforcement triggers were solid and that conservatives’ misgivings over the bill’s security measures were misplaced and based on disinformation. He gave a big speech acknowledging the conservative mistrust and explaining why, in this case, it was misplaced. The bill failed anyway because of hardline opposition from nativists in the House, so now Rubio is trying to spin it as a failure of the Obama administration and not the GOP’s poisonous internal divisions on immigration.
As for the back-and-forth with Cruz over supporting legalization, this is all part of the still unresolved question of what exactly the epithet “amnesty” is supposed to mean. In this case, Cruz is trying to define “amnesty” to specifically mean “supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” Rubio is trying to broaden it and drag Cruz into the amnesty-loving swamp with him by arguing that “amnesty” also means support for legal status. That’s why Cruz rebutted Rubio by accusing him of trying to “raise confusion” and arguing that “it is not accurate what he just said that I supported legalization.” That itself isn’t accurate, since Cruz absolutely has supported legalization measures, though as Texas Monthly points out, Cruz’s “convoluted and lawerly” explanation for that is that “he was proposing a sort of thought experiment, designed to expose the ‘hypocrisy’ of the Democrats.”
It’s all twisted up and massively cynical, and that presents a problem for Rubio since nobody does cynical manipulation better than Ted Cruz. The immigration question was always going to be a problem for Rubio since it offers Cruz a blunt instrument with which to whack him over the head. The bill is “amnesty,” it was supported by Democrats, Rubio supported it, so he backs “amnesty” and loves Sen. Chuck Schumer. The end. The comprehensive immigration reform bill stands out to conservatives as a vile monstrosity of lawlessness and perfidy, and not only was Rubio on the "wrong" side of it, he actively worked to secure its passage in the Senate.
Rubio’s attempts to expand the zone on “amnesty” and paint Cruz as a legalization lover aren’t without some merit, but it’s tough to see how he outmaneuvers Cruz on this when the best argument he has is “you also supported ‘amnesty,’ broadly defined.” Cruz is more closely aligned with where the base is on this, and they’re likely to let him squirm out of Rubio’s attempt to snare him – more likely, at least, than they are to forgive Rubio for being part of the Gang of Eight.