Leslie Sanchez: On Immigration, I Hardly Recognize My Old Friend, Ted Cruz

Five years ago, Ted Cruz and I met to discuss his strategy for his first statewide run for office.

We both took as a given that his road to electoral victory was as an outsider in the slow-to-adapt, establishment-oriented Texas Republican Party. He wanted to rely on grass-roots campaigning to leapfrog the arcane traditional process that rewarded Texas Republicans who wait their turn for the blessing of the party elite.

But back then, this meant something very different from what it means in the age of Donald Trump. And to be honest, I’m not sure the Cruz I knew then could have reached the Senate, as he did in 2012, let alone contend seriously for the GOP presidential nomination.

In those days, Cruz was my frequent collaborator and fellow board member at the Hispanic Advocacy and Policy Institute, a non-profit Latino-oriented organization promoting free-market principles. He understood that the base of the Republican Party was changing, and that Texas’ state party, taken over in recent years by an influx of white former Democrats, needed to diversify.

To that end, Cruz played a major role in developing what we referred to as “opportunity conservatism.” A decade ago, when I interviewed him for my book “Los Republicanos,” he discussed the importance of framing conservative policy as a means for helping Latino voters and new immigrant families ascend the economic ladder. He contrasted this with the approach of the modern welfare state, whose policies at best provide some temporary comfort for the poor, but then invariably leave them poor.

For example, in the debate over Social Security reform, he complained that the Bush administration had taken the wrong focus with its obsession over the program’s solvency. He urged instead that Republicans preach the virtue of private accounts as a means for poorer families to build assets that would put their progeny on stronger economic footing.

“Under private accounts,” he said, “the exact same immigrant works the exact same menial job, and when they hit retirement age they have accumulated an asset … an account of $200,000-$300,000 … that account can be passed on to the kids.”

Today, of course, one seldom hears Cruz talk about immigrants in the context of their economic empowerment.

That’s partly because he has joined a vastly changed and far more rancorous Republican debate over immigration. It is now little more than a rhetorical contest to see who can take the hardest line against “amnesty,” and promise to build the highest wall and the widest moat.

The change in Cruz’s tone on immigration — from inclusive-thinking policy adviser to sharp anti-amnesty campaigner — began during his 2012 Senate primary campaign. And it happened because he was trying to meet a market need.

Then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the establishment front-runner for the nomination, attacked Cruz for supporting “amnesty.” Cruz shot back by declaring no one would believe that “the same Ted Cruz who successfully defended Texas’ right to execute an illegal alien for raping and murdering two teenage girls is somehow soft on illegal immigration.”

This was good enough for Texas GOP primary voters, but it was a bit jarring that this heinous crime would be his go-to explanation for his own immigration position. Gradually, his anti-amnesty campaigning eclipsed what remained of his inclusive conservatism.

Latino Republicans in Texas were so proud when Cruz defeated the old boys’ network there. “Giddy” was the word one prominent Latina Republican used. We played our small part. We raised money, made introductions and expended what political capital we had to get him elected.

Today, his tone on immigration is hardly recognizable. He speaks endlessly about the evils of amnesty, bringing it up at every possible opportunity to attack other candidates who are close to his position from a practical policy perspective, but miles away when it comes to tone.

I spoke to several Texas Latino Republicans before writing this piece, and most said Cruz’s 2012 victory and current presidential run are still a source of pride. But they are split on whether they could vote for him now. 

“Somos familia,” one said, and “He can always come home.”

Only, there’s no evidence that he wants to.

Sanchez is former director of the White House Initiative on Hispanic Education under George W. Bush and author of “Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other.” Follow her on Twitter @lesliesanchez. 

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