Ted Cruz says he would limit legal immigration program

Story highlights

  • The Texas Republican said he would suspend all increases in legal immigration as long as American unemployment "remains unacceptably high"
  • Cruz said he would suspend the H-1B program for 180 days while he audited the system for abuses

(CNN)Ted Cruz backed sharply away from his long-held plan to increase legal immigration in Orlando on Friday, toughening his stance as he aims to draw a contrast with Marco Rubio in Rubio's home state.

Simmering tension between Rubio and Cruz approached outright hostility as the two campaigns accused one another of misrepresenting their position on immigration, perhaps the Republican field's most volatile issue. Cruz, at first slow to respond to Rubio's attacks on Thursday and Friday, said in a speech on Rubio's turf that positions like Rubio's should give primary voters serious pause, at one point coming close to saying the Florida senator was a liar.
"Legal immigration needs to be structured so that it serves America's needs," Cruz said Friday. "We welcome people from all over the world, but we shouldn't welcome people defying and gaming our laws."
    The Texas Republican said he would suspend all increases in legal immigration as long as American unemployment "remains unacceptably high." For most of the campaign, Cruz has stressed that he "celebrates" legal immigration and wants to streamline the process.
    Cruz also said he would suspend the H-1B program for 180 days while he audited the system for abuses, abandoning his prior support for a 500% increase in the high-tech program. Cruz had been under fire from conservative activists and some presidential rivals for backing the program which encourages legal immigration for highly skilled foreign workers.
    His 11-page plan distributed Friday, however, said nothing about what he would do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, a topic he has repeatedly refused to broach during the 2016 race.

    Back-and-forth with Rubio

    Cruz's shift came as he took his second day of fire from Rubio's campaign, which continued to wage an all-out research effort to highlight Cruz's past rhetoric on immigration that suggested a more conciliatory platform.
    Cruz and Rubio, who share similar biographies and were at a time close in Washington, are not immediate political rivals, with the pair mainly appealing to different wings of the GOP. But the campaigns appeared eager on Friday to tangle with one another, casting each other as the foil that shows that they are the most strident standard-bearers for their brands of Republicanism.
    "It could be Rubio this time, and another one another time," said Ladonna Ryggs, who leads the Cruz campaign in South Carolina, where Cruz will visit Saturday. "What is the difference between these people so they're not just a dime a dozen?"
    For Cruz, the Rubio broadside is a wide departure from the first seven months of his campaign, when he assiduously avoided commenting directly on his competitors. Now, with less than 100 days until the caucuses, Cruz appears to be discarding with that mantra, declaring that the seasons of the campaign had finally turned and that the time for policy differences had arrived.
    The Cruz-Rubio dispute centers on what each Cuban-American supported during the Gang of Eight deliberations in 2013. Rubio spearheaded a push for comprehensive reform in the Senate, which included a pathway to citizenship, or as Cruz calls it, "amnesty."
    "Where you stood up and lined up on the Gang of Eight bill was a time for choosing," Cruz said in Florida, declining to say Rubio's name but noting it featured "a Republican or two." He added: "Some of the politicians today regret having done so."
    Rubio, meanwhile, late this week hugged Cruz's position closely, telling reporters that he did not see much daylight between his position during the critical immigration negotiations and Cruz's.
    "I'm puzzled and quite frankly surprised by Ted's attacks since Ted's position on immigration is not much different than mine," Rubio told reporters Friday after his appearance at the Sunshine Summit in Florida.
    It's the same defense Rubio used Thursday when Cruz opened a battle on immigration with him that's been roiling over the past day, with both sides attacking each other.
    Cruz pressed the case again Friday morning, telling radio host Mike Gallagher he "laughed out loud" when Rubio first likened their immigration stances.
    "Yesterday, Marco had a fairly remarkable comment in that he suggested that my record was exactly like his on immigration and I have to admit, I laughed out loud at that," Cruz told Gallagher.
    But Rubio argued that if Cruz's position was so different he should let voters know that he changed his stance.
    "He's a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. If he's changed that position -- and certainly he has a right to change his position on that issue -- but he should be clear about that," Rubio said Friday. "On other issues regarding immigration, he's not that much further than I am. He wanted to double the number of green cards. He wanted a 500% increase in the number of H-1B visas. So everybody running for president on the Republican side in one way or shape supports some form or fashion the legalization of people that are in this country illegally."