Las Vegas — An exchange between the two most prominent contenders in the bid to topple Donald Trump as the Republican party's presidential frontrunner centered on one of the most contentious issues within conservative political circles: the legal status of undocumented immigrants within the United States.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who have dueled over the issue for months, engaged in a head-to-head battle over their respective stances on immigration that forced each candidate to declare, yes or no, their stance on a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing within the U.S., an issue viewed as critical to securing the Republican Party's electoral future.
"Sen. Rubio, you co-authored a bill, with Democrats, two years ago that allowed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants," asked CNN's Dana Bash. "Do you still support that path to citizenship, which means giving those immigrants rights, like the right to vote?"
Rubio, a Cuban-American who frequently cites his father's immigrant roots on the campaign trail and the debate stage, initially responded with the mechanics of his proposed initiative to curb illegal immigration.
"It takes 20,000 additional border agents and completing 700 miles of fencing, it takes a mandatory verify system and entry/exit system," Rubio said. "After we have done that, the second thing we have to do is reform and modernize the legal immigration system. After we have done those two things, the American people will be reasonable with what do you do with someone who has been in this country for ten or 12 years."
When pressed about what, exactly, that reasonable action would be under a Rubio administration, the senator stated, as he rarely does, that he supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who fulfill a long series of obligations.
"I am personally open, after all that has happened and after 10 years in probationary status, I am open to a green card," Rubio said.
It was a bold recommitment to the ideals that Rubio once espoused as frequently and as openly as his family's immigrant roots, dating back to the so-called "Gang of Eight" immigration bill in 2013, a failed comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally which Rubio spearheaded.
CNN moderators then turned to Cruz, who has long derided Rubio as tone-deaf on the issue of immigration, to ask whether Rubio's proposed immigration plan is substantively different from his own.
"Some chose to stand with President Obama and support a massive amnesty plan," Cruz said, linking Rubio's stance on immigration reform to being weak on national security, the focus of Tuesday night's debate. "Others chose to stand with... the American people and secure the border. This issue is directly connected to what we've been talking about: The frontline with ISIS isn't just in Iraq and Syria — it's in Kennedy Airport and the Rio Grande. Border security is national security, and one of the most troubling aspects of the Rubio-Schumer 'Gang of Eight' bill is it gave President Obama blanket authority to admit refugees."
Cruz finished his rejoinder by declaring, "If I'm elected president, we will secure the border. We will triple the border patrol. We will build a wall that works, and I'll get Donald Trump to pay for it."
Rubio, for his part, was confused by Cruz's response.
"I'm puzzled by his attack on this issue," Rubio told Cruz. "You support legalizing people who are in this country illegally, and supported a 500% increase in the number of H-1V visas and support doubling the number of green cards. I think what is important for us to understand is there is a way forward on this issue, and when I'm president I will do it."
Cruz fiercely denied the implication that he supported legalization for undocumented immigrants currently within the U.S. "I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty bill! ... For Marco to suggest our record is the same is like suggesting that the fireman and the arsonist have the same plan because they were at the same fire."
The Texan senator, who has dodged the issue of potentially allowing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants for months, finally clarified his stance. "I have never supported legalization and do not intend to support legalization," Cruz said.
The immigration fight is a central issue for the Republican Party, and the climactic battle between two of the candidates best positioned to eventually win the party's nomination has major implications for the general election. Ever since Trump kicked off his campaign by infamously asserting that immigrants from Mexico are "bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists," anti-immigration sentiment has simmered within the Republican Party's base, and has alarmed Latino voters across the U.S. Following Trump's lead, the presidential field's more conservative members have similarly doubled down on aggressive immigration policy.
But those positions, while popular with the Republican Party's white, working-class base, has alienated a crucial voting block. With more than 53 million Latinos living in the U.S., America's Latino population is a profoundly consequential voting block, and as the countdown to the 2016 general election continues, the group is on the verge of evolving from influential to explicitly decisive. According to data collated by Latino Decisions, a leading Latino political opinion research organization, the eventual Republican nominee will need to win over as many as 47% of Latino voters in 2016 — nearly double what Mitt Romney was able to muster in 2012.
For Cruz to recommit to anti-immigrant sentiment by refusing the possibility of a pathway to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living within the U.S. is a profound doubling down on the GOP's anti-immigration base. The exchange set a clear-cut division between Cruz and Rubio as standard-bearers of the two sides of the immigration debate within the party — and cornered both candidates into explicitly stating positions that may be hard to shake during the general election.