Ted Cruz: Unlike Donald Trump, I won't let deported illegals back in to become citizens

Via BuzzFeed, I wonder if Cruz knew he was being recorded here or if he didn’t and went further in criticizing He Who Must Not Be Shamed than he otherwise might have. He strikes me as the sort of pol who operates on the assumption that he’s being taped even when he’s in the bathroom, which, if so, means this was a deliberate salvo at Trump — probably in reply to Trump falsely claiming this weekend that Cruz didn’t support a border wall until Trump started pushing the idea. At long last, the amnesty war between the two populists has begun. Is it mutually assured destruction?

If the audio’s not clear, BuzzFeed has a transcript. The key bit is where Cruz says of Trump, “look, there’s a difference. He’s advocated allowing folks to come back in and become citizens. I oppose that.” Trump has indeed said he’d let the “good” illegals come back in after they’ve been deported; lots of border hawks, me included, have flagged that as evidence that Trump’s not as opposed to forms of amnesty as he seems. Until now, though, none of the other top-tier candidates have had the guts to make that point against him. Rubio, Bush, and Christie are all too compromised on immigration to get in a war of words about it with Trump, and Cruz hasn’t wanted to jeopardize his nonaggression pact with Trump until it’s absolutely necessary. Evidently he decided last night that Trump questioning his support for a border wall is dangerous enough to him that now it’s necessary to engage. Presumably Trump responds by amplifying Rubio’s claim that Cruz really did want more work permits in the Gang of Eight bill, and then Cruz retaliates by — well, if history is any guide, probably by posting a drawing of a heart with “DT + TC = BFF” on his Twitter account. It’ll be a short war, unless Cruz starts to slide in Iowa.

Or will it? This isn’t the first jab Cruz has taken at Trump in the past 24 hours — although yesterday’s was light, even by Cruz standards:

“Listen, politicians behave a certain way when they are panicking,” he told NBC in an exclusive interview aboard his campaign bus. “And they engage in attacks, they engage in personal attacks, that’s human nature. I understand that. I am not going to get drawn into that muck.”

Cruz has increasingly come under fire from fellow GOP candidates as he has risen in primary polls. On Monday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio alluded to Cruz’s foreign policy stances, knocking “isolationist candidates more passionate about weakening our intelligence capabilities than about destroying our enemies.” Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum released a campaign ad mocking Cruz’s infamous reading of the Dr. Seuss classic “Green Eggs and Ham” during a filibuster-like speech on the Senate floor in 2013. And last month, Donald Trump appeared to question Cruz’s religious faith based on his Cuban ancestry, telling a crowd in Des Moines that “I do like Ted Cruz, but not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba.”

Cruz demurred when asked by NBC News whether Trump’s statement constitutes “panicking.”

“I’m going to keep the focus on the issues that matter,” he said.

He can let Trump’s shots at his faith go because he has loads more credibility as a religious man than Trump himself does. An attack on his border-hawk bona fides is different, especially for a frontrunner in Iowa who’s touting an endorsement from Steve King. A two-pronged attack from Rubio and Trump claiming that Cruz supported amnesty in 2013 would do some damage, I think. I wonder if Cruz is prepared for that battle.

Exit question: Er, does this mean Ted Cruz now supports mass deportation? His new immigration plan, which he mentions here, calls for various new enforcement measures designed to encourage self-deportation, but as recently as six weeks ago, Cruz was unwilling to rule out the possibility that some illegals would be granted some form of legal status. That changed in December after Rubio accused him of supporting legalization; Cruz’s new line was that he would oppose it “today, tomorrow, forever,” i.e. categorically. Now here comes today’s clip. That leaves us … where? He’s prepared to forcibly deport everyone, as Trump is, or he’s prepared to let some illegals who won’t self-deport to stay in the U.S. but without the benefit of legal status? Gabe Malor says Cruz is saying the same thing he’s always said, that we need to enforce the law. True, but if it were that easy, Cruz wouldn’t have spent the past three years studiously avoiding giving a straight answer about what to do with the 11 million illegals who are here. He would have said, “Enforce the law. Everybody out. Period.”

So much for Cruz’s master plan to remain a bit closer to the center than Trump on immigration ahead of the general election, though. I do think he’ll continue to stay away from “Mexican rapists” talking points, but policy-wise, there may be no daylight between them before the primary ends.