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The Immigration Game Rubio and Cruz Can't Win

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Tuesday night's Republican debate proved once again that there is no way for a Republican -- any Republican -- to truly win a debate on immigration.

Yes, Republicans of all stripes can score partisan points when they talk about the border. The sizable decline in illegal migration coming across from Mexico during the Obama administration is a fact aggressively, almost universally, unacknowledged in Republican circles. So clamoring for a militaristic crackdown on the spectral hordes crossing the Rio Grande is a certain winner. Heck, it's so easy that even Jeb Bush, who memorably described illegal immigration as an "act of love," can fake it.

The trouble surfaces on the topic of the 11 million settled undocumented immigrants who crossed borders long ago. Their fate, and the intraparty conflict it generates between those entertaining punitive fantasies and those committed to more humane realities, is the crux of the party's Donald Trump calamity. Trump has merely channeled, albeit more effectively than many of us ever imagined, the ugly political energy that was bound to seep out one way or another. 

It's a mark of Trump's influence that the candidate who has been most forthright in expressing what his Republican colleagues also know -- that the U.S. cannot and will not eject 11 million residents -- was not party to the discussion. Jeb Bush was a spectator at the immigration fight on Tuesday night; Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were alone in the ring.

The two Cuban-American senators are both good politicians, which by definition means sort of lesser Houdinis. Each is desperate to present a hard line on immigration while maintaining just enough room to slip out of what appear to be ironclad commitments.

Rubio was an architect of the Senate's 2013 comprehensive immigration reform legislation. He has been in full flight from that achievement ever since. The plan he now proposes would use the E-Verify system to check employment eligibility nationwide. The practical effect would be to throw millions of undocumented immigrants out of their jobs.

Rubio says that years after E-Verify and a host of other controls are up and smoothly running, these immigrants would then be able to apply for a path to legal status. What immigrants would do to feed themselves and their families in the intervening years remains a mystery. Either Rubio is proposing a harsher form of Mitt Romney's "self-deportation," or he is slyly refusing to utter three little words -- "temporary work visas" -- until he makes it through the GOP primary.

Cruz does not want Rubio's plans to remain a mystery. But he is eager to continue camouflaging his own. Cruz offered an amendment in May 2013 that, he stated, would enable the 11 million to leave the "shadows" and become eligible for legal status. For good measure, he reiterated that claim a month later to National Public Radio, saying, "The 11 million who are here illegally would be granted legal status once the border was secured -- not before -- but after the border was secured, they would be granted legal status." He added that they would be "eligible for permanent legal residency" but not citizenship.

Cruz and allies have argued that he wasn't supporting a path to legalization; he was merely stating what the legislation, which he opposed, would leave in place were his amendment adopted. But Cruz has gone to great lengths to avoid being tied down on the fine points of 11 million lives.

At the debate last night, Cruz said, "I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization."

The first part of that statement is a bit shaky. The second part may be more so. "I do not intend to support legalization" is far from definitive. What if, in the course of human events, such as Cruz's eventual nomination, his political circumstances change, encouraging a softer line on immigration? Would his intentions change as well?

Forget about the fear mongering that dominated the debate Tuesday night; immigration is the primary battlefield of the Republican Party. The Republicans are debating a contest that their revanchist wing lost decades ago when immigration policy charted a path to a multiracial 21st century. The tacit, untenable promise of Trump is to somehow secure white dominance for years to come. Its pathos stems from the reality that even removing a sizable nonwhite population wouldn't achieve it.

Bush, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham and others have moved beyond demographic panic. Cruz and Rubio are making great efforts to accommodate it while avoiding an irrevocable capitulation to it. Neither wants to vow to immiserate 11 million people who have American family, neighbors, co-workers, friends and growing political legitimacy and clout.

Cruz and Rubio are very likely thinking the same thing: There is no way to win in November 2016 with a brutally punitive immigration plan. If they can only remain undetected until the GOP nomination is secure, they can then dart across the policy border. In the land of the free, and home of the brave, opportunity abounds.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net