KINGSTON, New Hamsphire — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz hit on immigration topics early and often Wednesday in his first public event a day after the Republican presidential debate, looking to sharpen contrasts with GOP rivals — including Senator Marco Rubio — on the contentious issue.
"Last night, you listened to one Republican after another who said, 'Gosh, it would be mean to enforce our immigration laws,'" Cruz said at a Veterans Day town hall in New Hampshire.
"And I would point out, by the way, everyone talks about how compassionate it is to grant amnesty to 12 million people here illegally," Cruz said. "They're very compassionate, but it's not very compassionate if I say, 'I'm going to give away your job.' That's the opposite of compassion."
Cruz's aides have promised an increased effort to highlight policy differences with his rivals, and his remarks teed up a primary race increasingly headed for a collision over immigration.
Rubio — who co-authored and then renounced a failed bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013 — is gaining momentum, and Donald Trump is still performing strongly while calling for a new "deportation force" to remove all undocumented immigrants in rapid order.
Dr. Ben Carson said at a Virginia event on Wednesday that he favored allowing otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants to earn legal status if they registered with the government and the border was secure.
Rubio and Cruz both currently advocate putting in place new border security measures before considering possible legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Asked by MSNBC whether there was any significant daylight between their positions, however, Cruz made clear that he wouldn't let Rubio off the hook for his prior record.
"It is not complicated that on the seminal fight over amnesty in Congress, the Gang of Eight bill that was the brainchild of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama, that would have granted amnesty to 12 million people here illegally, that I stood with the American people and led the fight to defeat it in the United States Congress," Cruz said.
He added that nominating a clear "amnesty" opponent was essential to Republican chances for victory, since conservatives won't turn out for a candidate they view as weak on the issue.
"In my view, if Republicans nominate for president a candidate who supports amnesty, we will have given up one of the major distinctions with Hillary Clinton and we will lose the general election — that is a path to losing," Cruz said.
Tuesday's Fox Business Network/Wall Street Journal debate featured an extended exchange over immigration in which Trump repeated his calls for a border wall and expanded deportations, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush decried his proposals as inhumane, unworkable and politically counterproductive.
The topic comes up often at Republican events in New Hampshire, and Cruz received several related questions. One woman asked about his prior support during the 2013 immigration debate for legislation expanding H1B visas for high skilled workers.
Cruz, citing recent reports of abuses by large companies to facilitate outsourcing, said he was working on a bill with Sen. Jeff Sessions — a leading GOP hawk on immigration — to "fundamentally change the H1B program."
"These stories are horrifying, those stories are a serious abuse of the program," Cruz said.