Sen. Ted Cruz has spent hours since the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas defending his position on immigration.

As a matter of GOP primary politics, Cruz is in a strong position, having been consistently opposed to permitting the 11-12 million illegal immigrants that live in the U.S. to become eligible for citizenship. But Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, among his chief rivals for the Republican nomination, has managed to keep Cruz off balance on the issue, despite supporting a pathway to citizenship, by pointing out that Cruz had never (until now, apparently) ruled out simple legalization of illegal immigrants.

Since the Republicans faced off Tuesday on CNN, a debate has raged over whether Cruz has been a quiet supporter of legalization, short of citizenship, all along, or whether Rubio has been conveniently mischaracterizing the Texan's position to obsure his own support for a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

Based on Cruz's interview with the Washington Examiner on July 1, 2013, just a few days after Senate passage of the comprehensive "gang of eight" immigration bill that Rubio co-authored, it's not unreasonable to walk away thinking that Cruz supported the concept of legalizating illegal immigrants — at least back then — as long as the border is secured first and that legal status was not part of a broader pathway to citizenship.

At the very least, his position is far more nuanced than the simplistic opposition to "amnesty" that he tends to focus on in debates and on the stump. Here's the relevant passage, presented unedited and in full, from that 35 minute interview with Cruz, conducted in Houston at the Free Enterprise Institute think thank that the senator credits with helping to form his political world view:

Examiner: Is the problem with the "Gang of Eight" bill that it has "legalization first," or that it has a "path to citizenship?" In other words, what if it was "legalization first," but they stopped at "green card," and that was it?

Cruz: Both. If you look at the Senate Judiciary Committee, I introduced five amendments. One was a border security amendment that put real teeth in the border security, which the Gang of Eight doesn't have. And, it fixed the problem of legalization first. In 1986, Congress offered the American people, we'll do legalization first and sometime in the future we'll secure the border. What happened in '86? The amnesty happened; the border never got secured. So the amendment I introduced fixed that and said: Secure the border first and then legalization. But I also offered a separate amendment to remove the path to citizenship. Now, notably, that amendment didn't alter the underlying legalization in the Gang of Eight bill. The affect if that amendment had been adopted is that the 11 million people who are here illegally, once the border was secured would have been allowed a work permit and indeed would have been eligible for a green card but not for citizenship because I think there needs to be some consequence for having broken the law.

Here is the rest of Cruz's answer to that question:


And in response to that amendment, because every Senate Democrat voted party line against it, [Democratic New York Senator] Chuck Schumer gave I think the most clarifying comments of the entire immigration debate, where he looked across the room at me and said, if there is no citizenship there can be no reform. And I took the chance to thank Sen. Schumer for his candor because he made very clear that he has one overarching partisan political objective and that is the only thing that matters to him. If he can not received 100 percent of his partisan political objective, he's willing to do nothing — zero — to secure the borders. He's willing to do nothing, zero, to improve legal immigration, to expand high-tech workers, which the tech industry so desperately needs. He's willing to do nothing, zero, to expand agricultural workers that the farming and ranching community so desperately needs. And most tellingly, he's willing to do nothing, zero, for the 11 million people who are here illegally today. What Chuck Schumer is telling them is, I'd rather you stay in the shadows, not have a legal work permit, because the only thing we, the Democratic Party, is interested in is our political objective, and if we don't get that we'll take our marbles on this and go home.

Immigration is a complex issue, and among the most politically charged, whether on the campaign trail in Washington. Cruz had only been a U.S. senator for six months when he sat for this interview, and had yet to make his mark by pushing a strategy to shut down the government as a ploy to corner President Obama and the Democrats into agreeing to defund and effectively abandon the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

Here are a few more passages, unedited, from this sit-down that might help shed light on Cruz's approach to immigration, at least at the height of the debate over the Gang of Eight bill which eventually died when the Republican House declined to take it up.

Examiner: Are all those [immigration policies] you support not worth giving Chuck Schumer his citizenship? They'd argue that you're taking your marbles and going home.

Cruz: If you look at the context of immigration debates over time, legalization is a major compromise. It is the Democrats who refuse to compromise. We get 100 percent of what we want, or the deal's off. But I do not support a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally for three different reasons.

No. 1, I think it's profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who followed the rules, who waited in line years sometimes decades, to reward those instead who broke the law and came here illegally with the same citizenship. And often in these immigration debates legal immigrants get forgotten.

No. 2, I think a path to citizenship would make the problem worse because it would incentivize future illegal immigration. If we once again grant a path to citizenship was we did in 1986, what it tells people throughout the world is, never mind our immigration laws, come here anyway you can, break the law, in another 10, 20 years we'll grant amnesty again and everyone will become citizens. The status quo is a horrible, broken system.

I invited Chuck Schumer to come down to the Texas border, spend some time on the border; visit the farmers and ranchers who have people everyday crossing their land illegally, breaking into their homes, stealing food and water, discovering bodies of women and children who've starved to death in the desert, who are entrusting themselves to coyotes and drug dealers who sexually assault them and abuse them. No humane solution would encourage future illegal immigration and in my view a path to citizenship makes it certain the process will continue all over again.

And, No. 3, even if you disagree on the merits with everything I've just said, as a simple political reality, I don't believe there are 218 votes in the House of Representatives for a path to citizenship, which means, if your objective is to pass something rather than to have a political issue to campaign on, you've got to go to a middle ground. If the votes aren't there in the House and I'm convinced they're not, then everything we saw in the Senate was all a show for the newspapers and for politics and was not designed to actually pass a bill. I would like to see a bill pass that fixes the problem.

Examiner: Is it possible that immigration reform as a general issue, is a gateway issue [for Hispanics]?

Cruz: There is no evidence to suggest that. The D.C. consultants like to pitch that and the Democrats love to pitch that. One of the saddest things we've seen in this immigration fight is that the Democrats have been politicizing this from the get-go, viewing it as a pure political issue, trying to demagogue the issue. I can tell you, there's no stronger advocate of legal immigration in the U.S. Senate than I am.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, over and over again when I introduced amendments to expand legal immigration to make it easier for people to come here legally, the Democrats on a straight party line voted 'no.' In 1986, the last major immigration reform that was passed, signed into law by a Republican president, was full out amnesty, the next election, the Republican share of the Hispanic vote went down, not up. What our polling has shown here in Texas, among TX Hispanic voters, when given three options in terms of immigration reform:

No. 1, a path to citizenship like the one in the 'Gang of Eight' bill.

No. 2, some form of legal work permit, but no path to citizenship, and

No. 3, no change whatsoever. A plurality preferred option two, a work permit but no citizenship, 46 percent compared to 35 percent for a path to citizenship. And I think the reason: If you get out from the Democratic partisans, the Democratic partisans are focused on political objectives, not actually on fixing the problem.

This Gang of Eight bill is not designed to pass, it's designed to be a political issue to use in 2014 and 2016. The bill that was just passed, I believe has no chance of passing the House. And I think Chuck Schumer and President Obama know that and are quite happy with that, because they're more interested in a political objective than they are in actually fixing the problem.

I am a strong believer in common-sense immigration reform, have been fighting in the Senate for months to try to actually fix this bill so it solves the problem, so it really secures the border and secures the border first, so it expands and improves legal immigration. And, so it respects the rule of law and doesn't encourage future illegal immigration.