When President Barack Obama pledged this week, finally, to make immigration reform a priority of his second term, the person I thought of immediately was Ted Cruz. And not in a good way. Just as the Texas senator brought the Capitol to its knees during the government shutdown/debt crisis just concluded, I predict the Cuban-American Tea Party darling will stand squarely against any comprehensive immigration-reform legislation that offends his decidedly non-Latino constituency.
He will be the anti-immigration reform colossus, who will rally the same House caucus that put 800,000 federal workers on furlough and nearly sent the world financial system in chaos. He will direct that caucus to prevent any significant progress on immigration, and given what he’s been through lately, Senator Cruz will have a relatively easy time crushing optimism.
After defying the Republican establishment and every economist in the world over the federal budget and the nation's debt ceiling, he has a far more vulnerable target in immigration reform. When you can stare down billionaire Warren Buffet, and ignore the titans of Wall Street and the IMF's Christine Lagarde, the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants don't stand a chance.
But if his ultimate goal is to run for president in 2016, what about the Latino vote that cost the GOP the White House in 2012?
Even if he runs for president as many are suggesting, this brilliant Ivy-League educated street-fighter knows the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue begins in places like Iowa and South Carolina, where Mitt Romney's harsh "self-deportation" credo still resonates positively, and where Latino voters are not a significant percentage of the electorate.
Regardless, he wouldn't count on Latinos in the early going anyway. Remember, in his otherwise triumphant 2012 run for the Senate, Cruz cruising to victory by 16 points over his forgettable Democratic opponent Paul Sadler, he lost the Texas Hispanic vote by 20 percent. Latinos in the Lone Star state voted 60 percent for Sadler.
So Latino Republicans, Senator Cruz owes little to Latino voters, and in a national race, he wouldn't need them until he got to the Florida primary anyway. And Latinos there in the Sunshine State figure to be much more welcoming of a Cruz candidacy than those in his home state of Texas.
The reason is simple. In Texas, the vast majority of Hispanics trace their roots to Mexico or Central America. In Texas, immigration issues directly or indirectly affect virtually every Hispanic household. Florida is different. Most Latino families there are either Puerto Rican or Cuban-American. Every Puerto Rican is a U.S. citizen, so immigration reform is technically a non-issue. We are sympathetic, but are only indirectly affected. And while most Puerto Ricans will vote for the Democrat in 2016 even if Cruz is the candidate, Florida's Cuban-Americans will be his secret weapon.
First of all, the immigration issue is far less urgent to Cuban-Americans. If an undocumented immigrant hails from communist Cuba, he or she gets hugely favorable treatment upon arrival on these shores than immigrants from any other national group.
Here's how it works:
Because of the enormous political clout of the Cuban exile community, once a Cuban immigrant steps on U.S. soil, he or she becomes a political refugee soon fast-tracked to legitimacy. If say a Cuban, a Dominican and a Mexican somehow arrive on a South Florida beach on board the same rickety boat, the Cuban would soon be welcomed, while typically, the Dominican and the Mexican would ultimately be deported.
Secondly, Cuban-Americans tend to be far more conservative and Republican than other Latinos. With their politics forged in the crucible of the Castro Revolution, the community elders have deep repugnance for anything that smacks of socialism. To be blunter, many Cuban-Americans are sympathetic of the Tea Party world view that Barack Obama is Fidel Castro-lite.
Take Ted Cruz's dad, Rafael Cruz, who was infamously caught on a YouTube video comparing the American president to the Cuban dictator.
"I grew up in Cuba under a strong, military, oppressive dictatorship. So as a teenager, I found myself involved in a revolution. I remember during that time, a young, charismatic leader rose up, talking about 'hope' and 'change'. His name was Fidel Castro." and the elder Cruz went on to say, "I think the most ominous words I’ve ever heard was in the last two State of the Union addresses, when our president said, 'If Congress does not act, I will act unilaterally'. Not much different than that old, bearded friend that I left behind in Cuba -- governing by decree, by executive order, just like a dictator, like Fidel Castro."
Imagine the dinner table conversations in the Cruz' household in the 1970’s and ‘80’s when the kid who would hold the government hostage in 2013 was growing up.
Senator Cruz has many admirable traits. He is obviously intelligent, articulate, energetic, convinced of his moral superiority and scornful of political moderation. He also seems haughty and too cool for compromise, which makes him the perfect flag-bearer for the "Don't Tread on Me" crowd. And he will squash the centrist, pro-compromise Republicans he calls "squishes," including Florida's Marco Rubio.
In 2010, that other young, attractive Cuban-American, pro-life, limited government conservative was elected to the United States Senate from Florida with 55 percent of the statewide Latino vote, leaving the Democrat Kendrick Meeks and the independent former governor Charlie Crist to split the rest.
Cruz would probably not fare as well as native son Rubio in Florida, but the odds are he could beat any other Republican candidate except Rubio. And I'm betting that a Cruz candidacy would pre-empt a Rubio run for the White House.
Look how the senator from Texas has steered a course far to the right of the senator from Florida on the issue of immigration. While Rubio attempts to craft a careful balance of pragmatic compromise balancing legitimate security concerns with the need to provide an eventual path to citizenship for the undocumented, Cruz ridicules the entire process and speaks contemptuously of any proposed immigration reform legislation, comparing the current Senate bill to the other gigantic entitlement, Obamacare.
As Senator Cruz did with his take-no-prisoners campaign to defund Obamacare, and as he did earlier in helping doom federal gun-control, he will play dirty while pretending to hold the moral high-ground.
Characterizing any proposal that allows the undocumented to “jump the line” as amnesty, he will whip the far-right into a frenzy over immigration reform. And because he has a Spanish name, and hails from a border state, he will be shielded from the charges of racism and xenophobia that have marginalized other rabid immigration opponents. But as Shakespeare said, "What's in a name?" His intolerance will ultimately be revealed, and were he to win the Republican nomination, he will lose in 2016 just as any other GOP candidate who refuses to understand Nueva America.
Geraldo Rivera is currently host of "Geraldo at Large" on Fox News Channel (FNC), which is also nationally syndicated by Twentieth Television. Rivera recently celebrated 40 years in journalism.