Behold the junior senator and tea-party hero from Kentucky, best known for citing the U.S. Constitution, Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
On Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul threw his support behind legalizing the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., signaling his determination to expand his following beyond the tea party movement as he positions himself for a 2016 presidential campaign. Just two years ago, Paul was pushing to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
Paul’s first major speech on the topic came the same day the Iowa Republican Party announced he would headline their annual fundraiser—a coveted stage for auditioning presidential candidates—and one day after a Republican National Committee report embraced immigration reform as a way to boost the party’s appeal with Hispanic voters. Paul’s speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington was striking not for its policy details—in fact, they were quite fuzzy—but for the obvious charm offensive it represented toward the fastest growing part of the electorate.
“I think his goal is to appeal to a broader audience,” said Sal Russo, a chief adviser to the Tea Party Express and a longtime Republican strategist. “Immigration is not a defining tea-party issue like spending and debt, and there is a wide spectrum of viewpoints on it. I think it’s a political winner.”
Paul is not fluent in Spanish but he slipped into the language several times during his speech, drawing applause from the Hispanic audience for his above-average pronunciation. The senator from Bowling Green, Ky., also reminded the audience that he grew up alongside many Hispanics in Texas.
“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans like myself become part of the solution,” he said. “That is why I’m here today, to begin that conversation.”
Though Paul disagrees with some key provisions of the immigration-reform plan backed by a bipartisan group in the Senate, the partial endorsement from a tea-party conservative was enthusiastically praised by some of those senators as well as immigration advocates.
"He killed it,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Reform, said of the speech. “The more people like Senator Paul are engaged in the debate, the more the conversation moves forward. He has credibility with tea-party conservatives like no one else.”
Paul’s speech was also noteworthy for its departure from his libertarian father’s legacy. Former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas took a hard-line stance against illegal immigration, demanding tighter border security; banning illegal immigrants from public schools, hospitals, and social services; and calling for an end to birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants. Last month, he called the bipartisan plan in the Senate a “bad deal.” So by veering from that script, the younger Paul signaled his hope to be taken more seriously than his father, a twice-failed presidential candidate who was frequently marginalized as a fringe ideologue. (The younger Paul said Tuesday after the speech that he would rethink his opposition to birthright citizenship if immigration laws were overhauled.)
Paul’s stock has been rising in recent days. He captured national attention and his colleague’s praise with a 13-hour talking filibuster and won the straw poll at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. But his lack of experience on the national stage was apparent Tuesday as his speech created widespread confusion over whether or not he backed allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
Though Paul did not use the words “pathway to citizenship” he didn’t rule it out in his speech, either. He backed allowing undocumented workers to live and work in the U.S. permanently without requiring them to return to their home country, but he said, “We also must treat those who are here with understanding and compassion without also unduly rewarding them for coming illegally.... My plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line.” Media outlets from the Associated Press to The Huffington Post initially reported that Paul did back a pathway to citizenship. Even Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee, was under that impression. “The consensus continues to grow in favor of immigration reform that contains a path to citizenship,” he said in a written statement.
Paul’s office objected to the early reports and arranged an afternoon conference call. Unfortunately, Paul didn’t completely clarify his position during the call, complaining that the debate was trapped in murky and polarizing phrases and words like “pathway to citizenship” and “amnesty.”
“Those who are here, if they want to work, let’s find a place for them,” Paul said. “If they want to become citizens, I’m open to debate as to what we do to move forward.”
Paul sought to frame his speech in broad strokes and avoid the weeds of policy details, adding, “I’m a conservative Republican who says we need to move forward on the issue of immigration reform. That’s a big step forward.”
So does Paul back the bipartisan Senate outline and President Obama’s proposal, which would allow illegal immigrants to eventually earn citizenship? Still unclear. Paul wrote a column for The Washington Times last month that only adds to the confusion. “I share the goal of a working immigration system, and a new approach to allowing those here in our country who want to work and stay out of trouble to stay here,” he wrote. “Would I hope that when they become citizens, these new immigrants will remember Republicans who made this happen? Yes. But my support for immigration reform comes not from political expediency but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key leader in the immigration talks and a potential rival to Paul in 2016, suggested there was no daylight between their positions in an interview Tuesday with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“Sen. Paul's speech it is a very good development,” he said. “We're not going to deport 12 million people, like Rand Paul said today. We're also not going to give blanket amnesty or special pathway to citizenship because it would be unfair to those who did it the right way. Finding that right balance is what we're working on.”
One area where Paul and Rubio clearly diverge is on E-Verify, the electronic database employers can use to verify citizenship before they hire. “I don’t like the idea of making every business owner a policeman,” he said. Paul also said he opposed the creation of a national ID card.
One of the most outspoken advocates for immigration reform, Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, said Paul’s speech showed how much Republican public opinion has changed on the issue.
“Rand Paul is a hot political property right now,” he said. “So where does he spend his newfound political capital? On immigration reform.... This speaks volumes about how far the debate on immigration reform and the GOP has come since the election.”