Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Tex.), speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year in Washington. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg News)

The anti-immigration crowd that derides “amnesty” (whatever immigration plan they don’t like) operates on a fundamental deception. That was made crystal clear when one of its most strident idols, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), was cornered on “Meet the Press.” This was the exchange:

CHUCK TODD:

What do you do with the 11 million people though? Do you have to send ’em back, or do you give them a way to get legal?

TED CRUZ:

Chuck, I don’t accept the premise that you have to solve every aspect of this problem all at once. President Obama and the Democrats focus on that issue because the question you’re asking is the most divisive partisan question in this entire debate. And I don’t believe President Obama wants to solve this.

CHUCK TODD:

I understand that it’s divisive. But the — it’s still a problem.

TED CRUZ:

But — but you don’t have to solve every problem at once. Look, here’s the problem —

CHUCK TODD:

That’s fine. But explain how you do it?

TED CRUZ:

I am explaining how. The last time Congress passed immigration reform was in the 1980s. And Congress came to the American people with the following tradeoff. Congress said there were three million people living here illegally. Congress said, “We will grant amnesty to those three million. In exchange, we’re gonna secure the borders. We’re gonna solve the problem so that illegal immigration goes away.”

Well, we all know what happens. The amnesty happened. And the border never got secured.

And here’s the sad truth. A lot of Republicans in the Washington cartel, they’re all for amnesty too because from the perspective of the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street, it’s cheap labor.

CHUCK TODD:

You still didn’t say what you’d do with the 11 million.

TED CRUZ:

Well, my view is first, we secure the borders and solve the problem of illegal immigration. And then I think we can have a conversation about what to do about the people who remain here. I don’t think the American people will accept any solution until we demonstrate step number one, we can secure the border.

CHUCK TODD:

So anything’s on the table? Potentially deportation or not deportation, but anything’s on the table for the 11 million–

TED CRUZ:

I think we should secure the border and then have a conversation at that point. Stop using the Washington approach of I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. The American people aren’t going for it.

This is the essence of the “anti-amnesty” deception: They have no answer to that fundamental question because their stance is untenable. Either they approve of massive deportation, which is utterly unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans, or they deal in some fashion with those illegal immigrants here, meaning they are no different from the people the “pro-amnesty” crowd denigrates. Cruz’s replies are all evasion, all catchphrases and no real answers. Candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who now opposes immigration reform (what specifically he opposes is unclear), will have the same problem. If cornered in a debate, the opponents of immigration reform risk a troublesome YouTube moment.

The candidates who are brave enough to offer a solution — either legal status or citizenship — should press their critics. The pro-reform candidates should mince no words. Their rivals are playing the same old game — demonizing those with a problem-oriented approach to politics. Preening and posing are not leading — and in the case of the strident anti-immigration set, its stance is dishonest.