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Ted Cruz’s immigration plan: tough on legal immigrants, tougher on unauthorized ones

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On Friday afternoon, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) released an immigration plan. The plan is arguably more similar to Donald Trump's plan, released this August (and which Donald Trump himself seems to have forgotten), than to Cruz's own position from past years.

In 2013, Cruz wanted to expand legal immigration, and proposed an amendment — which Cruz allies now claim didn't represent his actual position — to legalize unauthorized immigrants currently in the US without allowing them to become US citizens. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz wants to freeze legal immigration, make it much harder to get visas for high-skilled workers, and increase deportations.

And while he doesn't explicitly say this, his plan includes all the elements of past policy proposals for "attrition through enforcement" — the policy agenda known as self-deportation.

Cruz wants to make it much harder for employers to hire foreign workers

In 2013, Cruz opposed the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill that Marco Rubio helped write. At the time, Cruz made it clear that he opposed unauthorized immigration but supported legal immigration. He voted against amendments from Sen. Jeff Sessions to reduce legal immigration and actually introduced an amendment to make the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers five times bigger. And even during the speech unveiling his immigration plan, Cruz called for the US to focus on skilled workers such as doctors.

But he appears to be worried that the Republican base voters he's hoping to win away from Donald Trump are just as worried about legal immigrants taking their jobs as they are about unauthorized immigration. (He's probably right.) So his plan actually calls for a freeze on legal immigration levels — and it specifically targets the H-1B visa program.

Cruz' plan would "suspend the issuance of all H-1B visas for 180 days" while investigating the program. (Since new batches of H-1B visas get issued twice a year, and they typically run out within hours, this could be timed so that it didn't actually disrupt any visa issuances — but it would be tricky.) The H-1B visas will only start being issued again after his administration has made "fundamental reforms" to the program.

Cruz justifies the visa freeze by saying the government needs to investigate allegations of abuse in the visa program. There have, in fact, been increased reports that some of the heaviest users of the system are using H-1B workers to replace American workers. But those reports involve employers breaking the existing federal rules for hiring high-skilled immigrant workers. Cruz's "fundamental reforms" — which aren't included in his written plan but which he mentioned in his speech — include a requirement that visa holders have a PhD-level degree (preferably from an American university); a ban on firing American workers for a certain amount of time after H-1B workers are hired; and a requirement that employers sign sworn affidavits that they've tried to hire American workers first.

Cruz wants a freeze on legal immigration

Cruz also wants to freeze legal immigration levels across the board "as long as work-force participation rates are below historical averages." How high a bar that sets depends on how you define "historical": If you go back to the 1950s, the current labor force participation rate is on par with the historical average. Since Cruz doesn't think that's the case right now, it appears he's setting the bar a little higher.

Technically, he wants to prevent legal immigration levels from being "adjusted upward." That could just mean that he wouldn't let Congress raise quotas in the law. But if he means he would freeze the number of applications that the federal government could approve to come legally each year, it could have a pretty big impact.

There isn't great data on the number of legal immigrants who come in each year in total (official statistics conflate people who come to work for years with people on tourist visas), but a back-of-the-napkin calculation — involving people who come to the US with green cards, and people on temporary worker visas and their families — shows that the US admitted about 250,000 fewer legal immigrants in 2013 than they had in 2011. If that's where the level legal immigration were frozen, it's entirely possible that the system would strain after applications rose back to 2011 levels.

Cruz is explicitly calling for more deportations — and an elimination of "priorities"

Cruz's immigration enforcement plan does not explicitly promise to deport all unauthorized immigrants currently in the US. (Then again, neither does Trump's, despite Trump's repeated calls on the campaign trail for mass deportation.) But it does make it very clear that President Cruz would deport more unauthorized immigrants than President Obama has — and that he would make no distinction between immigrants who've been in the US for years and those who have just arrived.

Cruz promises, in so many words, to "increase deportations." It's not clear whether he means he'll increase them from current levels of 250,000 a year or so, or above the 400,000-per-year rate of Obama's first term. But either way, some of those deportations would almost certainly be of immigrants who've been here for years and have no criminal records — the immigrants that the Obama administration has been trying to protect from deportation, first by declaring them "low priorities" for deportation and then by attempting to allow them to apply for deferred action.

Cruz says that Obama has written "20 lawless and illegal memoranda and executive orders on amnesty," and that he will rescind every one of them on his first day of office. That number only makes sense if you include not only the president's memoranda on deferred action, but the memos from early in his term setting certain "priorities" for deportation to begin with. Rescinding those would send a clear message that all unauthorized immigrants are equally vulnerable to deportation.

Cruz's plan sounds a lot like "self-deportation"

This plan doesn't explicitly say that Ted Cruz supports, or opposes, eventual legal status for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the US. And it doesn't explicitly say that he would deport all 11 million of them. That's being taken by some political reporters as a dodge — that Cruz doesn't have a position on what to do with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the country at all.

That's not necessarily true.

It's certainly possible that down the road — maybe during a general election campaign — Cruz could declare that he also supports legalizing some or all of the 11 million, either at the same time as all his other reforms or sometime after his enforcement measures are in place. But Cruz's immigration plan paints a pretty complete picture of a strategy for "dealing with" the 11 million: attrition through enforcement, the strategy also known as "self-deportation."

The theory of attrition through enforcement is that you don't actually have to have an answer to "what do you do with the 11 million?" because you can reduce that number hugely by making the lives of unauthorized people so miserable that they will pick up and leave on their own. The standard planks of the attrition through enforcement agenda are increased interior enforcement and deportations; mandatory E-Verify to make it much harder for someone to get a job without work authorization; and making children born to unauthorized immigrants (including US citizens) ineligible for public assistance. Cruz's plan calls for all three of those. He also calls to end birthright citizenship — which would make it substantially harder for families to put down roots or integrate into the US.

Ted Cruz hasn't endorsed "attrition through enforcement" per se. But if this is the sum total of his desired immigration policy — and it appears that it is — that seems to be what he intends to happen. This would be his "answer" for the 11 million: More of them will be deported, and the rest of them would have to choose between an ever more difficult life in the US and returning home.