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Let's talk about a contentious issue in this country. Congress is debating changes to immigration laws. One central goal is providing a path to citizenship for millions living inside the U.S. but outside the law. That goal has generated strong opposition from one of the Senate's newest members, Texas Republican Ted Cruz. The senator's views on immigration are colored by the story of his own father. Cruz describes his father as an immigrant from Cuba who came here the right way. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Senator Ted Cruz has strong opinions, which he readily recites. Here's one he's talked about a lot lately.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: In my opinion, if we allow those are here illegally to be put on a path to citizenship, that is incredibly unfair to those who followed the rules.

WELNA: And the example that Cruz frequently points to, of an immigrant who did follow the rules, is his father, 74-year-old Rafael Bienvenido Cruz.

RAFAEL BIENVENIDO CRUZ: I came to this country legally. I came here with a legal visa. And every step of the way, I have been here legally.

WELNA: In an interview near his home outside Dallas, Cruz, the father, says as a teenager, he fought alongside Fidel Castro's forces to overthrow Cuba's U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. He was caught by Batista's forces, he says, and jailed and beaten before being released. It was 1957, and Cruz decided to get out of Cuba by applying to the University of Texas. Upon being admitted, he adds, he got a four-year student visa at the U.S. consulate in Havana.

CRUZ: The only other thing that I needed was an exit permit from the Batista government. And a friend of the family, a lawyer friend of my father, basically bribed a Batista official to stamp my passport with an exit permit.

WELNA: The Rafael Cruz that his son Ted portrays is a kind of Cuban Horatio Alger, arriving in the U.S. with only $100, learning English on his own, and washing dishes seven days a week for 50 cents an hour.

CRUZ: Since he liked to eat seven days a week, he worked seven days a week, and he paid his way through the University of Texas, and then ended up getting a job and eventually going on to start a small business and to work towards the American dream.

WELNA: Only he did that in Canada where Ted was born. His father went there after having earlier obtained political asylum in the U.S. when his student visa ran out. He then got a green card, he says, and married Ted's mother, an American citizen. The two of them moved to Canada to work in the oil industry.

CRUZ: I worked in Canada for eight years. And while I was in Canada, I became a Canadian citizen.

WELNA: Cruz, the father, says he renounced his Canadian citizenship when he finally became a U.S. citizen in 2005, 48 years after leaving Cuba. Why did he take so long to do it?

CRUZ: I don't know. I guess laziness or I don't know.

PETER SPIRO: This is a very, especially for the time, sort of a zigzag path to citizenship.

WELNA: That's Peter Spiro, a legal expert on U.S. citizenship at Temple University. Spiro says Rafael Cruz's multi-country odyssey did not follow traditional models for immigration.

SPIRO: Ted Cruz himself seems to be an advocate of those traditional immigration models. Maybe he should be a little more tolerant of the nontraditional versions, given his own father's history.

WELNA: And yet Ted Cruz wants to change the immigration bill with an amendment removing the path to citizenship.

CRUZ: The 11 million who are here illegally would be granted legal status once the border was secured. Not before but after the border was secured, they would be granted legal status. And, indeed, they would be eligible for permanent legal residency. But they would not be eligible for citizenship.

WELNA: And they would thus be ineligible to vote. Such immigrants would most likely vote Democratic, which is the real reason Cruz opposes a path to citizenship, says Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.

GILBERTO HINOJOSA: All these specious arguments that are being made about, whoa, my dad got in here the right way and therefore everybody else should are just are bogus and everybody knows that.

WELNA: Speaking yesterday with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, Ted Cruz said that by promoting what he called amnesty for unlawful immigrants, Senate Democrats were indeed hoping to get a lot more Democratic voters, but not among immigrants who did things the right way, like his father.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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