(AP Photo/John Locher)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “As far as Ted’s record, I’m always puzzled by his attack on this issue. Ted, you support legalizing people who are in this country illegally. Ted Cruz supported a 500-percent increase in the number of H-1 visas, the guest workers that are allowed into this country, and Ted supports doubling the number of green cards. …”

Dana Bash, CNN: “Senator Cruz?”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): “Look, I understand Marco wants to raise confusion, it is not accurate what he just said that I supported legalization. Indeed, I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty. … I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization. Let me tell you how you do this, what you do is you enforce the law.”

–exchange during the GOP debate on CNN, Dec. 15, 2015

A long-standing disagreement over immigration between the two senators boiled over during this exchange at the recent Republican debate. This moment also was notable because Cruz’s answer was one of the most declarative statements he made about what he would do about those living in the country illegally.

Cruz did propose amendments to the 2013 Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill to dramatically increase legal immigration, as Rubio said. But Cruz said he didn’t actually support legalization, and his campaign now says that the amendments were introduced as a tactic intended to kill the bill.

This poses a conundrum for The Fact Checker. We have no way to prove intent or know what Cruz was thinking when he introduced the amendments in 2013. But the issue is worth unpacking because it’s a good example of politicians using language to their advantage — and to potentially mislead voters. Bear with us as we delve into congressional sausage-making here.

The Facts

‘Legalization’

Cruz has been a staunch opponent of giving a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the United States illegally. In 2013, Cruz introduced five amendments:

  • Cruz 1: To triple the number of Border Patrol agents and quadrupling the equipment along the border.
  • Cruz 2: To deny means-tested government benefits to those who entered illegally.
  • Cruz 3: To strip away the pathway to citizenship.
  • Cruz 4: To expand legal immigration, by increasing employment-based immigration from 140,000 to 1,012,500 per year.
  • Cruz 5: To raise the H-1B high-skilled worker cap from 65,000 visas to 325,000 per year.

The amendment now in question is Cruz 3. In arguing for this, Cruz repeatedly said unauthorized immigrants would still be eligible for lawful permanent resident status and for the registered provisional immigrant status. He said he supported a path to legal immigrant status, and that he was aiming to “improve a very bad bill” and increase its chance to pass through Congress.

He made a strong case, as shown by these examples of his statements in support of legalization:

  • “I don’t want immigration reform to fail; I want immigration reform to pass. And so I would urge people of good faith on both sides of the aisle, if the objective is to pass common-sense immigration reform that secures the borders, that improves legal immigration and that allows those here illegally to come out of the shadows, then we should look for areas of bipartisan agreement and compromise to come together.” (May 2013 Senate Judiciary hearing)
  • “The amendment I introduced affected only citizenship; it did not affect the underlying legalization in the Gang of Eight bill.” (May 2013 event at Princeton University)
  • “Given that bipartisan agreement outside of Washington, my objective was not to kill immigration reform but to amend the Gang of Eight bill so that it actually solves the problem rather than making the problem worse.” (May 2013 interview with the Washington Examiner)
  • “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 is the compromise that can pass.” (June 2013 Senate floor speech)
  • “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 says. “And indeed, they would be eligible for permanent legal residency. But they would not be eligible for citizenship.” (June 2013 interview with NPR)
  • The New York Times and Texas Tribune interviewed Cruz about the amendments in September 2013 and reported he was looking for a compromise between Democrats and Republican hard-liners.

The wording Rubio used in the debate is important and carefully crafted: that Cruz supports “legalizing people who are in this country illegally.” In the sense that Cruz had said he supported certain methods of granting legal status to unauthorized immigrants, Rubio is correct. But Rubio’s description could also apply to the pathway to citizenship, which Cruz opposed — which makes Rubio’s statement incorrect.

Cruz also repeatedly said in 2013 he supports comprehensive immigration reform, but his definition for that is different from what the Gang of Eight bill proposed.

So these technical differences over the same phrase — “legalization,” “legalizing people who are in this country illegally,” “comprehensive immigration reform” — are all at play here.

‘Poison pill’

The statements Cruz made publicly in 2013 clearly do not jibe with his comment at the recent GOP debate that he “never supported legalization.”

Cruz’s campaign now argues that he introduced the amendment as a poison pill, intended to fracture the coalition pushing the Gang of Eight bill. Cruz’s campaign did not respond to our requests for comment, but we reviewed the evidence.

His Senate spokeswoman Amanda Carpenter defended Cruz’s statements in November 2015 in a series of tweets. She said Cruz’s proposals were “specifically designed to expose the fact that all Gang of 8 cared about was path to citizenship,” rather than fixing the immigration system and border enforcement.

When pressed about his 2013 statements and the citizenship amendment after the GOP debate, Cruz said: “It’s called calling their bluff.”

And in a Dec. 16, 2015, interview with Bret Baier on Fox News: “You’ve been around Washington long enough. You know how to defeat bad legislation, which is what that amendment did, is it revealed the hypocrisy of Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] and the Senate Democrats and the establishment Republicans who were supporting them because they all voted against it.”

FactCheck.org asked Cruz’s campaign for any instances where Cruz may have tipped his hand that he was trying to “prove a point” through this amendment. His campaign spokesman couldn’t provide any, and said: “We were not trying to let on our legislative strategy.”

Current and former Democratic Senate staffers familiar with the negotiations confirmed to The Fact Checker that Cruz’s bill was, indeed, viewed as a poison pill in 2013. Consider the impact some of his amendments would have had on the fragile agreements the coalition negotiated:

  • Tripling Border Patrol agents: The Senate ultimately approved an amendment to double the number of Border Patrol agents. But tripling the number would’ve gone too far and lost the support of some immigration groups, which believed an even bigger increase would be badly received by border communities and the public.
  • Expanding legal immigration: Such a dramatic increase in employment-based immigration and H-1B visas went far beyond the coalition’s negotiated cap at 65,000. As The Washington Post’s Paul Kane reported, Democrats, Republicans and their allies in the labor movement and corporate America worked for months to agree on this number, which was backed by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A slight increase or decrease would have jeopardized support from either the AFL-CIO or the Chamber of Commerce; Cruz’s proposal was a 400 percent increase from the negotiated cap.
  • Removing pathway to citizenship: This was the major negotiation point for the Gang of Eight, and would have killed the bill.

In reference to the citizenship amendment, then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said during the 2013 hearing: “My concern with this, I feel it would virtually gut the bill … and gut what has been a very careful balance by Republicans and Democrats and the sponsors of it.” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Gang of Eight Democrat, echoed the concern at the hearing: “If we do not have a path to citizenship, there is no reform, many of us feel. That is a bottom line here.” The Gang of Eight Republicans on the Judiciary Committee sided with Democrats in rejecting this amendment.

In a statement to The Fact Checker, Schumer confirmed Cruz’s bill was viewed as a poison pill: “This was an attempt to kill the bill, and there was no doubt at the time that Senator Cruz knew it would do exactly that.”

But a Senate aide questioned whether Cruz truly introduced it to derail the bill. There were sufficient votes in the Judiciary Committee to block amendments that would strike the underlying framework of the deal, and wouldn’t have passed the committee, the aide said.

It’s important to remember the political climate at the time. The bipartisan Gang of Eight and its coalition seemed poised to get the landmark reform bill passed through Congress, and the hard-liner rejectionist was out of favor, said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration-reform group America’s Voice. Sharry said he believed Cruz was “creating mischief and attempting to undermine the bill by peeling off Republican votes for the Gang of Eight bill,” but positioning himself to the right of Rubio while supporting immigration reform.

After all, introducing the amendments gave Cruz the ability to show the Hispanic community — should the reform bill pass Congress — that he supported expanded legalization, a former Senate aide said.

The Pinocchio Test

This is a prime example of a politician retroactively using the sausage-making process of Congress to his advantage.

Cruz made a strong case in 2013 for his amendment to strip the path to citizenship from the immigration reform bill, while allowing legalization. Taking his numerous statements at face value, Cruz clearly supported some type of mechanism to grant legal status to immigrants who entered the United States illegally.

Two years later, Cruz says the amendment was a tactic intended to call the Democrats’ bluff and derail the bill. There is reasonable evidence that this is indeed the case. Some of the amendments he introduced, including the citizenship one, would have pushed negotiated provisions in the bill far beyond the agreed-upon terms. Key Democrats on the committee viewed Cruz’s amendment as an effort to sabotage the bill.

Yet there also is a Machiavellian element to Cruz’s gambit. Cruz positioned himself in a way so that he would appear pro-legalization if an immigration overhaul passed — or appear anti-legalization if hard-liner stances became more acceptable. We wonder how Cruz would frame his 2013 public statements now if an immigration bill had passed both houses of Congress and enjoyed popular support.

Cruz’s public statements in 2013 and in 2015 are inconsistent. But we have no way of knowing whether he really was using a tactic then, or if he is using a tactic now — or both. If we had a mind-reader, either the 2013 or 2015 version of his explanation would be Pinocchio-worthy. But we can’t read minds, and it’s not The Fact Checker’s job to rate claims using speculation, so we will not issue a rating. But readers can certainly draw their own conclusions.

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