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Ted Cruz Veers Right in Immigration Dustup with Marco Rubio

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Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a presidential candidate debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Back in 2013, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz proposed a massive expansion of legal immigration. Today, he pledged to freeze it as part of an aggressive new pitch for an immigration crackdown. What happened in between was Donald Trump.

Cruz once set the standard for the Republican Party’s conservative hardline. But in a sign of the party’s rightward lurch amid a raucous presidential primary — one in which Trump, the front-running billionaire developer, has reset the terms — Cruz this week found himself scrambling to maintain his anti-immigration street cred amid a dustup with rival Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

The two 44-year-old senators and sons of Cuban immigrants are leading the polls among elected officials vying for the GOP nomination, topped only by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, so perhaps it’s no surprise that this week the gloves came off.

Indeed, much of the party establishment has worried that Trump’s anti-immigration, populist appeal would pull the party to the right on the issue, further alienating Hispanic voters and dooming the eventual Republican nominee in the general election. Their fears may be coming true.

Even Cruz isn’t immune from Trump’s gravitational pull, despite being one of most vocal opponents of the immigration overhaul efforts of the last two years. The Texas Republican on Friday outlined a tough new immigration plan that adopts key planks of Trump’s proposal, including building a wall — and ditches Cruz’s past support for a massive increase in legal immigration. The plan comes just days after Rubio criticized Cruz for proposing policies similar to his own.

Rubio long ago renounced the comprehensive immigration bill that he helped steer through the Senate in 2013. Cruz opposed that measure. But Rubio this week highlighted an amendment Cruz offered that would have let illegal immigrants stay in the United States, although not get citizenship. And Rubio also cited Cruz’s support for a massive increase in legal immigration.

Indeed, during the immigration debate, Cruz offered amendments to double legal immigration to 1.3 million a year and increase H1-B visas for skilled workers by 500% to 325,000 — even higher than the underlying bill that Rubio co-authored— arguing at the time that the influx of legal immigrants would boost the economy.

That’s a position that is broadly unpopular in the Republican Party, where most voters want less immigration, not more.

And Thursday, in an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, 2015 Cruz flip-flopped from 2013 Cruz. “I don’t believe that’s a good idea,” Cruz said when pressed by Ingraham about implementing his earlier proposals.

Cruz doubled down on his new position Friday, saying he would freeze legal immigration until workforce participation rates rise. He proposed a 180-day pause in the H1-B program, dramatically ramping up enforcement at the border and in communities across the nation, and intensifying deportations.

On the Ingraham show, he noted recent reports of abuses of the H1-B program and said he was working with noted anti-immigration hawk Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) on a bill to crack down on misuse of the program, and said he would not allow the program to displace American workers.

He also said his 2013 amendments were in the context of a larger attempt to kill that package — and on Twitter, his defenders were casting his amendments as poison pills.

But in 2013, Cruz was telling a different story.

“I don’t want immigration reform to fail. I want immigration reform to pass,” Cruz told the committee when offering his amendment to strip a pathway to citizenship from the bill. Cruz said his amendment would allow illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows and make it much more likely the bill would become law.

He also spoke passionately of the benefits of more legal immigration, even citing his own father’s experience emigrating from Cuba.

“We should continue to call out to the world, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,’” he said in a statement earlier in 2013.

That’s not exactly a Trumpian statement. Indeed, until Friday, Trump’s immigration plan was the only one from a leading candidate that would significantly slow legal immigration.

Now there are two.