Republican senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have arrived at the contentious
issue of immigration from very similar places.
Both came from immigrant families. Both have Cuban roots. Both rose to the Senate with help from the Tea Party and still speak in glowing terms about how the U.S. remains the greatest nation for downtrodden immigrants to lift themselves up.
But as Congress arrives at a key moment in its work to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, the two stand at opposite ends of the debate on whether to allow the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to become citizens. That divide mirrors the argument within the Republican Party over how to handle the immigration bill -- and could end up propelling, or sinking, the two senators as they mull possible presidential runs in 2016.
"Each approach, each strategy represents a bet on the future that's very different," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas. "It is kind of stunning, but they need some separation so they can have their fight."
Although the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a sweeping immigration bill, which Rubio helped write as part of the bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight, the men remain fiercely divided over the issue.
Rubio, who served as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, has become the chief salesman of the immigration bill.
He says deporting the millions of people here illegally is not doable, or affordable, and rejects the idea of making life so miserable for them that they decide to "self-deport."
Instead, he says, they should be placed on an "earned" pathway to citizenship that will take at least 13 years for most, will cost at least $2,000 in fees, and requires they pass criminal background checks, learn English and civics.
"The vast majority of conservative Republicans are saying, 'We are prepared; we know we need to do immigration reform, just please make sure that this illegal immigration wave doesn't happen again,'" Rubio told CBS This Morning. "I think that's a very reasonable request."
Cruz, who served as Texas' solicitor general before winning his Senate seat in 2012, has become one of the most vocal critics of the Gang of Eight bill, which he voted against Tuesday. He says allowing unauthorized immigrants to get citizenship is unfair to the millions of people who have waited years, and sometimes decades, applying for green cards.
"If there's a pathway to citizenship ... that is inconsistent with the rule of law," Cruz said Tuesday. "It's unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who have followed the rules, who have waited in line years and sometimes decades to come. And ... if the pathway to citizenship is included in legislation that Congress passes, it will serve only to encourage yet more illegal immigration."
Rubio and Cruz's offices declined repeated requests for interviews for this story. But their stances on immigration resonate beyond the Capitol as their supporters wonder how it will affect their future prospects.
Where Americans stand on the issue is not clear, according to polling. A Gallup poll conducted in April reported that 65% of Americans support a plan that allows the nation's unauthorized immigrants to become citizens. But a Pew Research Center poll in late March had only 43% of Americans agreeing with the idea.
Obstruction to citizenship
The March poll showed that Republican support for a pathway to citizenship dropped, with only 57% in favor. And some members of the Tea Party movement feel betrayed by Rubio's embrace of immigration.
John Baker, a retired police commander who is now coordinator of the Pensacola Patriots, has met with Rubio and praises him for sticking to his conservative principles on most issues. But not immigration. "The Tea Partiers feel like he's reversed his ethics when it comes to immigration," Baker said. "He's an intelligent young man. But he's hurt his political career, and he knows that."
Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, says Rubio's embrace of the immigration bill is the latest in a winding road on immigration. As a state legislator, Rubio supported a Florida plan giving college tuition breaks to children of unauthorized immigrants, but veered right during his Senate campaign by embracing Arizona's 2010 immigration law that cracked down on unauthorized immigrants.
Now, Smith says Rubio is moving back to the middle to win over the widest possible audience.
"I think it's because he has a pretty good sense of the political winds as well as popular support for immigration reform," Smith said. "I think he's looking at a potential run for president and seeing that public opinion strongly supports a reform that is not going to ship everyone back."
Whatever support he loses from his conservative base, however, could be offset by gaining support among the fast-growing Hispanic electorate. Ever since Romney's dismal performance among Hispanics -- he garnered just 27% of the Hispanic vote in 2012 compared with the 40% President George W. Bush collected during his successful 2004 re-election campaign -- GOP leaders have made efforts to woo Hispanic voters.
Rubio has said repeatedly that his decision to join the Gang of Eight has nothing to do with politics, but some Republican leaders say his decision is definitely helping him.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, says Rubio may face a tougher time surviving a GOP primary but he said party members as a whole understand they can't have a repeat of the 2012 primaries where candidates were openly battling to be the hardest on unauthorized immigrants.
"On Nov. 7, 2012, we awoke to a very different political reality," Aguilar said. "Finally, we understand the decisiveness and the impact the Latino vote can have and that you cannot be nationally viable if you don't have strong support from Latinos."
"Rubio understands that," Aguilar said. "I don't think Cruz does."
But Cruz's opposition to citizenship for people who broke U.S. laws to be here has cemented his hold on the Tea Party, whose members and sympathizers have are active in GOP primary elections nationwide.
While senators on the Judiciary Committee have been sorting through more than 300 amendments to the bill, Cruz is the only one on an 18-member committee not to have any of his amendments adopted. One of his amendments would have tripled the number of Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border -- from about 20,000 to 60,000. Another states that no unauthorized immigrants can ever become a U.S. citizen.
"If you're somebody in another country who wants to come to the United States and you followed the rules, you applied to come legally, if we pass something that allows those here illegally to achieve citizenship, it means you're a chump for having stayed in your own country and followed the rules," Cruz said on conservative Sean Hannity's radio show.
Buchanan, who specializes in presidential politics, says he believes Cruz is making the calculation there are enough Republicans who oppose Rubio's bill that he can raise his profile by being its loudest opponent. "He's creating a brand that's getting more attention than anyone in D.C., and that includes Rubio," he says.
What's said vs. how it's said
The battle over immigration still has a long way to go. The next stop -- the Senate floor -- is where the last major attempt to overhaul immigration laws died in 2007. And Cruz's opposition to a pathway to citizenship should have more support when the debate shifts to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
A group of 27 conservative groups including the American Conservative Union issued a statement last month supporting the immigration bill.
"Simply opposing immigration reform should not be the conservative response to this problem," the statement read. "We believe conservatives should be leading the way on this issue by supporting legislation that upholds conservative principles."
On Tuesday, a coalition of influential conservative leaders including Tea Partiers issued an open letter comparing the "bloated and unwieldy" bill to "Obamacare" and echoed many concerns Cruz has made.
Yet it may be not the arguments the two men make but the way they make that will matter most to their future ambitions.
"Their position on immigration reflects their attitude," said Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio-based media consultant who advised Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush.
"And a candidate's attitude has to do with whether people will like them enough to vote for them. People have to know you, people have to like you, and if they don't like you, they don't vote for you. That's up to them."
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