Reporter asks Ted Cruz four times: "How do you define amnesty?"

The best part is when she asks the obvious follow-up — is a path to legalization “amnesty”? — and he won’t even make eye contact.

There’s a spectrum of answers to this question on the right, of course:

1. Amnesty is citizenship without preconditions. That’s the strictest definition, and naturally the one preferred by Beltway Republicans like Marco Rubio in his Gang of Eight days. (Marco Rubio circa 2010 had a different view.) As long as you’re forcing illegals to jump through some sort of hoop, be it learning English, paying back taxes, going to the back of the line, etc, that’s not amnesty — even if you’re granting them citizenship. Anything short of immediate voting rights for illegals, no questions asked, is A-OK.

2. Amnesty is citizenship. That’s Jeb Bush’s position, as I understand it. Jeb will legalize ’em, let ’em stay in the U.S. and work, but allowing them to become full citizens with voting rights goes too far in rewarding them for breaking our laws. The most an illegal can aspire to be is a permanent legal resident. Beyond that lies amnesty.

3. Amnesty is legalization unless you’ve improved security first. That’s Ted Cruz’s position (and Marco Rubio’s current position), again as I understand it. This isn’t so much a literal definition of “amnesty,” which is a matter of legal status, as it is a political compromise between the two prongs of comprehensive immigration reform. Legalization (i.e. work permits) is on the table if and only if we see concrete improvements in internal enforcement first. Border hawks got suckered in 1986 by accepting promises of future border security in return for immediate grants of amnesty; despite the Gang of Eight’s best efforts, they won’t get suckered again. If you can make legalization of illegals contingent upon measurable gains in enforcement, then that’s not “amnesty.” Via Breitbart, here’s Cruz in his own words explaining his view to Hugh Hewitt:

Once we secure the border, you stop filling the boat that’s sinking, a number of people start to go home voluntarily every year to be with their families. That population will start shrinking. After that, you deport the criminal illegal aliens. The population continues to shrink. After that, you put in place strong E-verify so those here illegally can’t get jobs. The population continues to shrink. And then once we have finally demonstrated to the American people that we have secured the border, the problem’s solved, it’s not a promise from a politician, it’s not empty words, it’s been done, then and only then, I think we should have a conversation with the American people about what we should do about whatever smaller population remains. But I don’t think we should start there at the front end. We should start with border security, and that’s what I’ll do as president.

Deportations plus attrition through enforcement will lower the total illegal population substantially, and then, as for the ones who doggedly stick it out and remain in the U.S., we’ll, er, “have a conversation” about what to do with them. Here’s the conversation: “We’re gonna have to legalize them, guys.” End of conversation.

4. Amnesty is legalization, period. That’s the Trump position: They broke the law by coming here illegally so we can’t reward them by letting them stay and work. They’re all going home. And then, per Trump’s plan, the “good” ones are going to come right back in legally once they’re been removed. Why that’s any better in practice than Cruz’s position, I don’t know; arguably it’s much worse since it would involve the enormous expense of mass deportations with no intention of barring the deported permanently from the U.S. But it sounds tough so it works politically on the right.

Anyway, you can see why Kasie Hunt is so eager to pin Cruz down on this. Cruz’s game is to convince conservatives and/or Trump fans that he’s taken position 4, the most hardline in principle, when in reality he’s never moved off of position 3. Republicans want the toughest possible response on illegals so Cruz spends 99 percent of his time on the subject talking up better enforcement and slamming Rubio for having once pushed position 1. When you ask him the key question of whether legalization constitutes amnesty, though, he averts his eyes because he knows border hawks want to hear “yes” and he can’t give that answer. The real fun’s going to start when the Trump/Cruz war begins in earnest and Trump accuses Cruz of being a RINO who won’t send the illegals home and Cruz accuses Trump of having a stupid “touchback” deportation that won’t actually achieve anything except to make border hawks feel good. Position 3 versus position 4. Where’s the smart money?

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