Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s decision to back a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is a new and important milepost on the long road to a comprehensive immigration bill. In a speech Tuesday morning to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Tea Party favorite urged conservatives to embrace immigration reform, arguing that the status quo is untenable and the Republican Party should help shape legislation to overhaul a balky immigration system.
“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation,” Paul said. “Let’s start that conversation by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants. If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.”
The path to citizenship favored by Paul differs in important ways from the framework that a bipartisan group of his Senate colleagues are currently hashing out. The Kentuckian’s vision is predicated on a secure border, which would have to be certified by border patrol forces and upheld by Congress. It calls for a bipartisan Congressional panel to determine how many work visas to hand out, an issue that Senate negotiators have partially delegated to powerful labor unions and business groups. It would not include a national ID card or a mandatory E-Verify program, which many conservatives favor.
But Paul’s speech was the latest sign that conservatives are ready to jettison their staunch opposition to granting illegal immigrants the privilege of citizenship.”The solution doesn’t have to be amnesty or deportation. A middle ground might be called probation, where those who came illegally become legal through a probationary period,” said Paul, who offered scant details about how the transition would work.
Instead, Paul’s speech was peppered with references to his upbringing alongside Latinos in Texas and his love of Latin culture. This focus, on the human side of a thorny policy issue, underscores the belief within the GOP that its toxic rhetoric on immigration has come to jeopardize its political future. “The vast majority of Latino voters agree with us on these issues, but Republicans have pushed them away with harsh rhetoric over immigration,” Paul said. “Republicans have been losing both the respect and votes of a group of people who already identify with our belief in family, faith, and conservative values. Hispanics should be a natural and sizable part of the Republican base.”
Indeed, Mitt Romney garnered a meager 27% of Hispanic voters in November. His dismal performance with Latinos has triggered a hairpin turn on immigration for many Republicans, including Paul himself. In 2009, the Tea Party upstart proposed building an underground electrified fence as a way to secure the border. Last August, the Republican Party adopted a national platform that backed “self-deportation” and mandatory employer checks as solutions to the problem of illegal immigration. On Monday, a report on the future of the Republican Party commissioned by the RNC recommended that it “embrace and champion” comprehensive reforms.
This shift is particularly prominent among prospective 2016 presidential contenders. Paul, who is fresh off a filibuster opposing the Obama Administration’s drone policy that earned bipartisan plaudits and who won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, becomes the fourth potential candidate to embrace immigration reform. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a longtime proponent. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is a member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight on immigration. And on the House side, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan — who cosponsored a bipartisan 2005 bill to initiate comprehensive reform without amnesty — is serving as an adviser to the not-so-secret bipartisan group of eight representatives who are quietly hashing out their own parallel framework.
In private conversations, Ryan has sought to frame reform to fellow conservatives as both a moral and economic imperative. Paul took a similar tack in his speech Tuesday. “Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into being taxpaying members of society,” he said. “Imagine 12 million people who are already here coming out of the shadows to become new taxpayers. Twelve million more people assimilating into society. Twelve million more people being productive contributors.”
That four viable Republican presidential candidates have urged the party to shift its position is a critical sign that the old political ice pack has shattered at the highest levels. In the 2012 race, Mitt Romney’s immigration advisers hailed from the restrictionist wing that crafted Arizona’s so-called show-me-your-papers law. Rick Perry was bruised by his support for in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
Now, most Republicans in Washington have come to recognize the political damage their dogma has inflicted. Many think stasis is more dangerous than substantive change, regardless of how tricky the issue may be. “It’s significant,” Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a longtime leader in the quest for comprehensive immigration-reform, said of Paul’s remarks at a Tuesday breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “The moment is politically ripe,” Gutierrez added, to finally pass a bill in the narrow window between early April, when legislation will be introduced, and the end of July, when President Obama hopes to sign it into law.