Tonight's Republican presidential debate will likely again include questions on immigration, which has emerged as a dominant theme among the GOP contenders with billionaire Donald Trump waging some of the harshest rhetoric against immigrants seen in recent years. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, running neck-and-neck with Trump in Iowa, has until now remained largely vague on the issue, reiterating his opposition to "amnesty" but not ruling out a path to legalization once the border is secure, which he calls his priority. But as Trump began lashing out at his closest competitor this month, Cruz revealed his stance to the right of Mitt Romney's so-called "self-deportation," in which the former Massachusetts governor advocated making life so difficult for immigrants here illegally that they would leave on their own. It came in the midst of Trump's attacks on Cruz as unqualified to be president and accusing him of being beholden to oil companies because he opposes ethanol subsidies, popular in Iowa. So far, Trump had spared Cruz from criticism but as the Texan began gaining on Trump, the businessman changed course. He also suggested Cruz might have difficulty appealing to the state's evangelical voters because of his Cuban heritage. Days later, Cruz's campaign chairman met with a group of Latino conservatives to detail his stance on immigration. Buzzfeed reports that Chad Sweet explained: ADVERTISEMENT "Cruz opposes any and all forms of legalization for undocumented immigrants ... he believes in attrition through enforcement — or making the lives of those in the country illegally so hard that they go back to their native countries. That, the group said, amounts to self-deportation, a policy supported by Mitt Romney in 2012 widely credited with hurting him with Hispanic voters." "We learned today that Sen. Cruz believes in attrition through enforcement," Alfonso Aguilar of the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership and de facto leader of the group said, adding that the Cruz camp doesn't like to call it self-deportation "but that's what it is." The position, Aguilar later told reporters, is "perhaps even worse" than Trump's plan to deport all 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. The group has already said it could not support Trump as the GOP nominee due to his hard-line immigration proposals. ADVERTISEMENT Asked about the campaign's meeting with the group Monday, a Cruz spokeswoman told the Texas Tribune that the discussion reflects the senator's belief in enforcing the law. "Enforcing the law is enforcing the law no matter how anyone wants to spin it," spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said. "Our legal immigration system is a mess because there's a political unwillingness among politicians in Washington to enforce our laws." Members of the Latino group said they were alarmed by Sweet's remarks, which they interpreted as unbending opposition to offering any form of legalization. "We really need him to clarify because ... we heard today for the first time as we've never heard from his campaign before," Rev. Tony Suarez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told the Texas Tribune. His campaign officials said Cruz is an ardent supporter of legal immigration, promising the Hispanic group that "once they reviewed all the immigrant visas, that they would call for an increase in legal immigration and visas." The immigration plan Cruz laid out last month, however, only calls for stopping "any increases in legal immigration so long as American unemployment remains unacceptably high." Cruz himself seemed to embrace self-deportation in a recent talk radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative Catholic, but he also seemed to leave the door open to eventual legalization: "You deport the criminal illegal aliens. The population continues to shrink. After that, you put in place strong E-verify so those here illegally can't get jobs. The population continues to shrink. And then once we have finally demonstrated to the American people that we have secured the border, the problem's solved, it's not a promise from a politician, it's not empty words, it's been done, then and only then, I think we should have a conversation with the American people about what we should do about whatever smaller population remains. But I don't think we should start there at the front end. We should start with border security, and that's what I'll do as president." This stance seems somewhat consistent with the position Cruz took during the 2013 immigration legislative debate when he sponsored a Senate amendment replacing a pathway to citizenship with a legalization program that fell short of citizenship. The Cruz campaign has since distanced him from this amendment, claiming it was intended to kill the legislation. Immigrant advocates blasted Cruz's recent shift, recalling how Romney infamously tumbled in the polls among Latino voters after his self-deportation remarks. "With his recent shift to the right, the policy stances of Ted Cruz do not differ significantly from those of Donald Trump," Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform group in Washington D.C., said in a statement. "This may turn out to be smart tactics in this year's Republican primary. However, in a general election the fact that Cruz is to the right of where Romney was four years ago is likely to be as successful as it was four years ago."