marco rubio ted cruz cnn gop debate isis terrorism voting record 15_00004907.jpg
Marco Rubio attacks Ted Cruz's voting record
02:38 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Ted Cruz on Tuesday said he did not "intend" to support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants

That closed the door much more tightly on a proposal he has repeatedly declined to address

Washington CNN  — 

Ted Cruz on Tuesday significantly toughened his position on how to deal with undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, closing the door on legalizing them and instead suggesting that he would deport them.

Cruz has vocally opposed a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, but he has taken pains during his presidential campaign to not rule out a path to legal status, often telling reporters that he will not discuss what to do with them until the southern border is secured.

But in Tuesday night’s CNN debate, Cruz went further than he ever has before.

“I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization,” the Texas senator said on the debate stage after rival Florida Sen. Marco Rubio encouraged the moderators to pose that question again to Cruz.

Rick Tyler, a campaign spokesman, confirmed that Cruz unequivocally now does not support a path to legalization.

Although Cruz has pushed back on Rubio’s claim that the Texas senator supported a path to legal status during the 2013 immigration fights in Congress, Cruz has never before stated that he did not plan to support a path to legal status moving forward. Some have raised the prospect of Cruz eventually coming out in support of legal status in a general election, during which that position would be more politically appealing.

In his immigration plan rolled out last month that his campaign called comprehensive, Cruz did not address what he would do with the undocumented immigrants already here, declining to specify whether he would deport them or grant them legal status.

And speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper after the debate, Cruz even indicated he would back deporting those who came here illegally – another proposal he has usually rebuffed.

“I would enforce the law,” Cruz said, explaining that he would first deport criminals without proper papers. “Federal immigration law provides that if someone is here illegally and is apprehended, that they should be sent back to their home country.”

Cruz has recently begun stressing that he believes the number of undocumented immigrants would decrease with strict border enforcement. But asked last month in Iowa how he squared that “comprehensiveness” with his lack of a comment about those already here, the Texan said no one was interested in that question beyond the media.

“The only people I’m under fire from are reporters who want to throw rocks,” Cruz said in Harlan. “Once we’ve demonstrated that we can solve the problem, then we can have a conversation about what to do about whatever people remain illegally.”

The Rubio campaign has argued that Cruz previously supported legalization during the debate over the Gang of Eight bill, which Rubio championed in the Senate. Cruz introduced an amendment that allowed for legal status that he said was meant to show that the comprehensive immigration bill was really about citizenship rather than a true representation of what he believes.

The Rubio campaign disagrees, citing it as evidence that their positions aren’t that different.

“He has attempted to muddy the waters,” Cruz said on the stage. “Where there was a battle over amnesty and some chose, like Sen. Rubio to stand with Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer and support a massive amnesty plan. Others chose to stand with Jeff Sessions and Steve King and the American people and secure the border.”

CNN’s Ashley Killough contributed to this report.