WASHINGTON (CNN) — He may be one of the most junior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Sen. Ted Cruz's comments carry a lot of weight.
That may be because the freshman senator from Texas, who was just elected to Congress last November, won office with the help of the tea party movement, is a darling among some conservatives and is the only Republican on the panel who may have designs on the White House in 2016.
And Cruz, whose father was Cuban-born, is firmly in the spotlight as the committee begins hearings on a comprehensive immigration bill. During a committee hearing Monday, Cruz made no bones about his feelings on a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers living in the United States.
"If the bill includes elements that are deeply divisive, and I would note that I don't think there is any issue in this entire debate that is more divisive than a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally, in my view any bill that insists upon that jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill," said Cruz in his most thorough remarks on the proposal since it was formally introduced last week.
The legislation, put together by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators, calls for an extended pathway to citizenship (10 years to obtain a green card and another three years to apply for citizenship) for most undocumented workers who entered the U.S. before 2012. Along the way, undocumented workers would have to pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check. The legislation also mandates that there be no path to legality until it is determined that the U.S. border with Mexico is secure.
While polls indicate a majority of Americans support such an eventual pathway to citizenship, a vocal minority of conservatives call such proposals "amnesty."
Cruz didn't use the "A" word at the hearing, but he made it clear that any pathway to citizenship provision will doom the overall bill.
"It is my hope that passing a bipartisan bill addressing areas of common agreement...will not be held hostage to an issue that is deeply, deeply divisive, mainly a pathway to citizenship," said Cruz.
Cruz's stance puts him at odds with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican member of the "Gang of Eight," who was also elected (in 2010) with strong support from tea party activists. Rubio, like Cruz, is also considered a rising star. But the similarities don't end there: Rubio's parents were born in Cuba, and Rubio's considered a serious contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
After President Barack Obama won nearly three-quarters of the Latino vote in last year's presidential election, the Republican National Committee conducted a top-to-bottom review that recommended the party change its language and messaging in an attempt to better reach out to minority voters and younger voters. And most of the early possible GOP White House hopefuls, including conservative Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, appear to be open to some kind of eventual pathway to citizenship.
While Cruz, the former solicitor general of Texas, denies that politics is behind his stance on immigration (as does Rubio), his position does allows him to stand out from the rest of the possible 2016 crowd.
(Note: Cruz's eligibility to run for president has been subject to debate. He was born in Canada to a Cuban father, but his mother was an American citizen).
"Ted is a very smart guy. He's carved out a position that has put him to the right of the other potential '16 GOP candidates, but hasn't panned the entire bill. He has to be careful. Texas is changing and Hispanics there aren't his biggest fans," says GOP strategist and CNN contributor Ana Navarro.
"Bottom line: Ted is Hispanic and that means there is greater scrutiny on him on the immigration issue and by other Hispanics. If he has national aspirations, he shouldn't become the anti-immigration reform guy," adds Navarro.