A group of Hispanic Republicans who condemned Donald Trump for his anti-immigrant rhetoric before the last GOP debate, publicly criticized Ted Cruz on the eve of Tuesday's debate for embracing the idea of self-deportation of immigrants illegally in the United States.
Cruz's campaign chairman, Chad Sweet, and other staff attended a closed-door meeting with Latino Republican leaders and said unequivocally that Cruz opposes any form of legalization for immigrants already in the U.S. without legal permission, said Alfonso Aguilar, director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who has been a spokesman for the group that met in Las Vegas.
"They stated very clearly the senator believes in 'attrition through enforcement,'" Aguilar said Monday. He added that, based on the explanation, Cruz is backing self deportation but calling it by another name.
"For all intents and purposes (self deportation) describes what they are proposing," said Aguilar.
Cruz campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier later said in an emailed statement that "anyone who truly cares about fixing illegal immigration understands that we must secure the border and enforce the law, and that includes building a wall that works, strengthening E-verify, and enforcing the law including deportation of those who are here illegally."
Meanwhile, Cruz has been rising in the polls and has taken second place to Trump.
And Republican Hispanics also are concerned that Cruz has gone out of his way to embrace Trump, whose rhetoric against immigrants, particularly Mexicans, has been seen by many as offensive.
His support of Trump would prevent him from getting Latino support, Aguilar said.
"We are very united," Aguilar said. "More than ever after the Cruz presentation. We don't want to elect just any Republican. We want to promote someone we think will respond to the Hispanic community and conservative principles."
The group did applaud Cruz's support for increasing legal immigration. Sweet repeatedly told the group Cruz wants to be the champion of legal immigration, Aguilar said.
"He said there's no better friend than Ted Cruz to legal immigration," Aguilar said.
The group had considered criticizing Cruz when they blasted Trump, but some group leaders opposed taking on the Texas senator at the time.
Tony Suarez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which has supported Cruz, said he found what Cruz's campaign said "alarming, surprising, concerning."
He said it was the first time he'd heard that position from the campaign and was reaching out to Cruz to clarify.
"He's been a good friend of evangelicals and supporting religious freedom, where we stand on Israel and where we stand on life," Suarez said. "We knew there was a difference of opinion but what was said today by his campaign was very alarming and concerning. Hopefully the senator, if that is in fact where he stands, will change his mind. And if not, we hope we can continue meeting and talking this through and being able to show the difficult position he's putting conservative groups in."
'"This is deja vu for Mitt Romney," Suarez said.
Romney expressed support for a mass deportation plan and only won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012.