Ruben Navarrette: Cruz talks himself into a knot on immigration

SAN DIEGO – Ted Cruz used to be known for straight talk. But on immigration, all we hear from the Texas senator is doublespeak.

Gracias, Marco Rubio. It took the Florida senator to open up a national dialogue over whether Cruz – despite his bluster against “amnesty” – at one point actually supported legislation that would have given legal status to the undocumented as long as it didn’t include a path to citizenship.

If someone was going to attack Cruz’s character, it makes sense that it would be a fellow Cuban-American. Every Latino learns sooner or later: No one can hurt you like one of your own. We know each other’s weak spots and which buttons to push. And we’ll push them.

This telenovela began when Cruz recently jabbed at Rubio for co-sponsoring in 2013, as part of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” a controversial immigration bill that Cruz has insisted was “amnesty.”

Never mind that, after an amendment process designed to attract the broadest possible support, the path to citizenship was made so long and difficult that policy analysts estimated that only half of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States could ever qualify. Those are facts, but the immigration debate has shown little tolerance for such things.

During the recent Republican presidential debate, the senator from Florida punched back by insisting that Cruz is in no position to criticize anyone for having supported the immigration bill since Cruz himself had proposed an amendment – which would have bestowed legal status instead of citizenship – that he said at the time was intended to help the bill get passed. Rubio was implying that Cruz is a hypocrite and opportunist who can’t be trusted.

At first, Cruz tried to brush off the charge by declaring that he has always opposed amnesty.

But Rubio wouldn’t let it go, demanding that debate moderators ask the Texas senator the question directly: “Does Ted Cruz rule out ever legalizing people that are in this country now?”

Cruz responded: “I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.”

It might be that both parts of that response are false.

First, has Cruz really never supported legalization? That was exactly what his amendment was about: legalizing the undocumented. And he recently told Fox News’ Bret Baier that, of course, he wanted his amendment to pass. Ergo …

When he proposed his amendment, Cruz told various groups that he did so to improve the bill’s chances of passing.

In May 2013, Cruz said during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “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 who are here illegally to come in out of the shadows, then we should look for areas of bipartisan agreement and compromise to come together.”

Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives have desperately tried to help Cruz out of this jam by framing the amendment as a “poison pill” that was actually intended to scuttle the bill. But, as Baier mentioned, the Texas senator specifically told Byron York of the Washington Examiner in 2013 that this was not the case and “my objective was not to kill immigration reform.”

Next, is it really true that Cruz doesn’t “intend to support legalization” for the undocumented? Not ever?

Last month, during an interview with radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, Cruz said he would dramatically shrink the illegal-immigrant population through increased enforcement and speeding up the legal immigration process. At that point he said, “I think we should have a conversation with the American people about what we should do about whatever smaller population remains.”

Go back to Cruz’s response at the debate and take note of where the Harvard Law School graduate lawyered up. It’s this phrase: “I do not intend to support legalization … .” Do not intend? Even Cruz’s right-wing supporters must have been thinking: How about something more definitive, amigo?

Those folks have reason for concern. When you boil it down, Cruz’s best defense is that, when he proposed his amendment, he lied to immigration-reform advocates about his motives – all for the sake of politics. If that’s true, how can his supporters be sure now that he’s not doing the same thing to them?

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is