WASHINGTON, DC -- Immigration may be a contentious issue among GOP candidates, but Tuesday night’s debate made a big case for the value it can bring to the U.S.: two Latino sons of immigrants battling for a chance to occupy the White House.
Going into Tuesday night’s debate they – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – were at the No. 2 and 3 spots in the GOP nomination race nationally, albeit with a sizable gap behind the frontrunner Donald Trump.
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Their presence seemed to echo what President Barack Obama had said just a few hours before the debate, at a citizenship ceremony at the National Archives:
“Immigration is our origin story and for more than two centuries, it’s remained at the core of our national character. It’s our oldest tradition.It’s who we are. It’s part of what makes us exceptional,” Obama had said.
Cruz and Rubio are Cuban Americans. Rubio’s grandfather remained in the U.S. despite a removal order and his parents arrived separately in the 1950s. Cruz’s father came to the U.S. and then moved to Canada, where Cruz was born; his mother was an American citizen.
They serve as reminders that even though Obama got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, there are Latinos in the Republican party and the party, at this point, is doing better than Democrats with positioning Hispanics for the country’s highest office.
But there wasn’t a lot of praising of America’s immigrant tradition during the debate that focused largely on national security. Cruz and Rubio tried to outmatch one another on toughness on the estimated 11 million immigrants that arrived or stayed in the U.S. illegally.
Their efforts to paint the other as not tough enough on immigration showed how far to the right the discussion on immigration has shifted, to a point that the Gang of Eight immigration reform plan Rubio once supported is completely off the table, said Stella Rouse, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
“That’s not even part of the Republican discussion of what can be accomplished,” Rouse said.
Cruz called the bipartisan Gang of Eight bill, passed by the Senate in 2013 and that included a series of steps over the years that led to applying for citizenship, a “massive amnesty plan.”
“He was fighting to grant amnesty and not to secure the border. I was fighting to secure the border,” Cruz said.
Cruz and Rubio serve as reminders that at this point, Republicans are doing better than Democrats at positioning Latinos for the country's highest office.
Rubio said when he endorsed the bill then, he didn’t understand America’s distrust of federal government to enforce immigration laws. But he now gets that, he said, and wouldn’t think about a path to a green card for immigrants until the border is under control.
Then Rubio hit back with criticism of Cruz’s votes to increase legal immigrant visas that are awarded to high-tech workers. He also said Cruz supports granting legal status for people not legally in the U.S.
But less than 24 hours after the debate, Rubio went in a more conciliatory direction. "I personally do not believe that it's good for America to have millions of people permanently living here who can never become Americans, who want to be Americans, who love America, but just can't become Americans - I personally don't think that's a good idea," Rubio said.
Rubio added he recognized his position "is not a majority position in my party — maybe not even a majority position in large parts of America," Rubio said.
Cruz’s campaign chairman on Monday told a group of GOP Hispanics that Cruz wants to be the champion of legal immigration. He also told them that Cruz supports “attrition through enforcement” for people not legally in the country, a phrase that the group interpreted as self deportation.
“I have never supported legalization and I do not intend to support legalization,” Cruz said in the debate.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Cruz's comments confirmed what his campaign chairman told the GOP Hispanic coalition on Monday. But Aguilar said Cruz was wrong when he said he never supported legalization. Cruz had supported a path to legalization, he said. "You are entitled to change your opinion, but not entitled to you own facts. He changed his position. He flip-flopped," Aguilar said.
Tony Suarez, vice president of The National Hispanic Christian Leadership, also said Cruz had changed his mind on legalization. The group of Hispanic evangelicals had hoped Cruz might offer a different position than was articulated by his staff at Monday's meeting, But Suarez said he made clear in the debate his opposition to granting any legal status to immigrants illegally here.
In some of the post-debate spin, Rubio and his supporters were questioning whether Cruz left an “escape hatch” by using the word “intend.”
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A factor that can’t be ignored is that although Donald Trump still leads the GOP pack, generally by double digits, Cruz was the frontrunner in The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll and running neck-and-neck with Trump in the Public Policy Polling survey.
Trump still leads in New Hampshire, whose primary follows Iowa's.
Whoever wins in the primary has to be able to win in a general election, where the growing Latino electorate have more impact.
To that end, Princeton University political scientist Ali Valenzuela said Rubio is in a better position than Cruz to take a moderate stance on immigration - as well as other issues - that might appeal to Latino voters in the general election.
Rubio talked about immigration in a way that sounded “sincere” and “heartfelt” like he knew what he was talking about,” Valenzuela said.
“Immigration is not an issue that I read about in the newspaper or watch a documentary on PBS or CNN,” Rubio said in the debate. “My family are immigrants. My wife’s family are immigrants. All of my neighbors are immigrants. I see every aspect of this problem. The good the bad and the ugly,” he said.
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Valenzuela said it is good for Republican primary voters to hear the story Rubio tells about his background and his associations with immigrants; it shows the country can have immigrants and immigration that doesn’t only support the Democratic Party.
Aguilar added that Rubio showed he wants to work to fix the dysfunctional immigration system, bring immigrants out of the shadows and create a path for legalization. Unlike Hillary Clinton who has backed a path to citizenship, Rubio could get bipartisan support for his proposal, Aguilar said.
Meanwhile, Cruz uses “very negative terminology and language. He continues to use the term illegals,” Valenzuela said. “And there’s evidence the Latino community doesn’t respond well to that kind of rhetoric.”
Valenzuela said Cruz’s view that he does not intend to support legalization “is a death knell for support among Hispanics, whether Republican or Democrat.”
"Cruz is planning to win Iowa and it's a very short-sighted strategy," Aguilar said. "It may help him in Iowa and get him support of those in the base who are restrictionists and who don't support immigration reform, but a majority of likely Republican voters support some form of legalization."
Danny Vargas, a Republican who lost a bid this year to be the first Latino to represent his Virginia district in the state assembly, said there is some excitement to seeing the two Latinos have a central place in the GOP contest and in the debate.
“I disagree with most of the positions Ted Cruz talks about but frankly, he’s brilliant. Rubio has a similar story to mine as one can get and was one of the best orators on stage,” Vargas said.
“It’s great to have two Latinos who are more than qualified who are leading,” Vargas said. “Does it mean I’d vote for them because they are Latino? It would have to come down to who represents my values and positions.”