Ted Cruz Is Being Trampled on Immigration Reform

The conservative base is turning on him. 

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio
Ted Cruz, left, and Marco Rubio are battling over immigration.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images and Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

In Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, Sen. Ted Cruz chastised liberals and the media for imputing bigotry to critics of illegal immigration. “For those of us who believe people ought to come to this country legally, and [that] we should enforce the law, we’re tired of being told it’s anti-immigrant,” Cruz protested. “I am the son of an immigrant who came legally from Cuba to seek the American dream. And, we can embrace legal immigration while believing in the rule of law.”

In the days since that statement, Cruz has been refuted in the cruelest way. He has been lambasted by his rivals not only for insufficient zeal against undocumented workers, but for supporting visas and green cards for people seeking legal entry to the United States. Republicans are no longer just running against amnesty. They’re competing to see who can take the toughest line against immigration of any kind.

Six months ago, Sen. Rick Santorum was the only presidential hopeful campaigning loudly against legal immigration. His argument was that immigrants increase the labor supply and drive down wages. Since then, other candidates have raised the same alarm. “Every year, we voluntarily admit another 2 million new immigrants, guest workers, refugees, and dependents,” Donald Trump’s website complains. Trump advocates a crackdown on “the admission of new low-earning workers,” as well as an indefinite “pause” in the issuance of green cards.

One favorite target of immigration critics is the H-1B visa program. It’s designed to let U.S. employers bring in foreigners to do skilled jobs for which they can’t find American workers. The program is run by lottery, and lately, it’s been abused by outsourcing firms that crowd out honest applicants by submitting thousands of applications. One solution might be to change the rules. Another approach would be to increase the number of visas. But as fury against immigration builds on the right, the whole idea of work visas and green cards is becoming anathema.

Initially, critics of the H-1B program targeted Sen. Marco Rubio. He’s distrusted on the right because he helped write the Senate’s immigration reform bill two years ago, though he has since renounced the bill and has implored conservatives to forgive him. Trump’s website complains that Rubio “has a bill to triple H-1Bs.” Two weeks ago, in a debate, Rubio was challenged to defend the program. But now the hardliners have turned on one of their own: Sen. Ted Cruz.

On Nov. 2, Santorum called three of his fellow presidential candidates—Rubio, Cruz, and Jeb Bush—soft on immigration. “Ted Cruz wants to take the H-1B program and increase it by 500 percent,” Santorum told an Iowa audience. This week, after Cruz accused Rubio of supporting amnesty, Rubio fired back, using Santorum’s argument. On Thursday, speaking in South Carolina, Rubio noted that two years ago, Cruz “supported a massive expansion of the green cards. He’s supported a massive expansion of the H-1B program, a 500 percent increase.” Santorum joined in the attack, accusing Cruz of courting Republican donors by “bringing in a whole bunch of people legally” to supply cheap labor. Another candidate, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, called H-1B visas “worse than amnesty” and demanded to know “why any Republican would support a program that imports foreigners to replace American workers and drives wages lower than the Dead Sea.”

On the charge of having advocated for legal immigration, Cruz is guilty. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie points out, Cruz worked for President George W. Bush in the quaint old days when Bush was promoting work visas. Two years ago, when Rubio and his colleagues offered their immigration bill, Cruz proposed amendments that would have doubled the number of green cards (from 675,000 to 1.35 million per year) and quintupled the number of H-1B visas (from 65,000 to 325,000 per year). To make his case, Cruz cited productivity data:

A 2007 study by the White House Council of Economic Advisors concluded that immigrants raised U.S. GDP by $37 billion per year. According to the Small Business Administration, immigrant entrepreneurs start 17 percent of all new businesses in the United States. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, immigrants are twice as likely as native-born individuals to start new businesses.

Now Cruz is running away from that record. On Wednesday, his campaign said he no longer favors an increase in H-1B visas. On Thursday, Cruz told conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham that when he offered his amendments in 2013, he was just trying to kill the bill and block amnesty. Ingraham asked Cruz whether, as president, he’d support “increasing the number of foreign workers.” Cruz shrank back: “I don’t believe that’s a good idea.”

What happened to Cruz? He led a right-wing stampede against sensible government, and now he’s being trampled by it. Two years ago, if you endorsed legal immigration but opposed amnesty, you were a staunch, principled conservative. Today, if you try to defend that position, you’re a squish. The law-and-order argument against border-crossers has been replaced by economic and cultural resentments. The new targets of the anti-immigration movement are birthright citizenship, Latin American ancestry, and public use of Spanish. Restrictions on admission to the Republican presidential nomination are tighter than ever. Too tight, perhaps, even for Ted Cruz.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.