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Politics & Government

Cruz-Rubio Immigration Battle Dates Back To 2013 Bill

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Donald Trump is in the lead for the Republican nomination thanks in part to his tough stance on immigration. And that issue is now the subject of an intriguing fight between two senators who trail him in the polls but who have a good shot at becoming the nominee. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are both 44 years old and both are sons of Cuban immigrants. NPR's Tamara Keith has been digging into their battle and what it means for the campaign.

Welcome back Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: So what's the issue here?

KEITH: Florida Senator Marco Rubio was one of the authors of that big comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. That bill gave undocumented immigrants legal status and a path to citizenship. It didn't become law. Rubio has since disowned it, but Texas Senator Ted Cruz seems eager to bring that up whenever possible. So Tuesday night at the debate, Marco Rubio attempted something of a Jedi mind trick. He took this thing that's a problem for his campaign and tried to make it a problem for Ted Cruz too. He said that during the 2013 immigration bill debate, Ted Cruz introduced an amendment that would've given legal status but not citizenship to undocumented immigrants. Ted Cruz says he never supported legalization.

CORNISH: OK. So help us tease this out. Where is Rubio getting this from, and did Ted Cruz support legal status for undocumented immigrants?

KEITH: There was an amendment, and it would've prevented undocumented immigrants from becoming citizens, and, at the same time, it would've allowed them to stay in the country and work legally. Here's Cruz arguing in favor of that amendment on the Senate floor back in 2013.

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TED CRUZ: If the proponents of this bill actually demonstrate a commitment not to politics, not to campaigning all the time, but to actually fixing this problem, to finding a middle ground, that would fix the problem and also allow for those 11 million people who are here illegally a legal status with citizenship off the table. I believe that's the compromise that can pass.

KEITH: So there Cruz sounds like a guy who supports legal status. He even said that he wanted the bill the pass.

CORNISH: All right. So it seems like a pretty straightforward case, right, of someone hardening their position on immigration in a primary going on right now, right? Like Senator Marco Rubio did. So what else is going on here? Give us the context.

KEITH: What is going on here is today Ted Cruz, at a media availability, came out and said, oh, no, no, no, no, no - I never supported it. I really - I never supported it.

He said in 2013 he was just trying to outmaneuver Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRUZ: What they were interested in, what Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama wanted was very simple. They wanted millions of new Democratic voters. There's a reason why I think the new politically correct term is no longer illegal aliens. It's now undocumented Democrats.

KEITH: And that right there is Ted Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz, painting himself as the ideologically pure conservative and also trying to remind everyone that Marco Rubio helped craft that immigration bill along with Democrats. Not clear yet whether this new move from Cruz will affect anything.

CORNISH: I like you translating this bickering, but what is the value here, right? What does this say about where we are in the race?

KEITH: I think that it says a lot. This race, this argument, is a microcosm for the larger race. The real question of the GOP primary is, do they a pick hardline conservative like Ted Cruz or do they pick an establishment candidate like Marco Rubio, who talks about immigration in sort of a softer tone?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith.

Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.