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Why Rand Paul evolved on comprehensive immigration reform
The Kentucky senator and Ron Paul scion is throwing his support behind a path to citizenship. Can he bring his supporters along?
 
Sen. Paul holds binders, a reference to his recent 13-hour filibuster, as he arrives to speak at CPAC March 14.
Sen. Paul holds binders, a reference to his recent 13-hour filibuster, as he arrives to speak at CPAC March 14. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Corbis

On Tuesday, rising GOP star Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) is throwing his support behind comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. According to previews of his speech, for a U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce summit, Paul will urge his fellow Republicans to join him in dropping their opposition to letting undocumented immigrants stay in the U.S. "Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution," he says. "I am here today to begin that conversation."

The road to citizenship Paul proposes isn't easy or quick: Border security comes first, and only once Congress, an inspector general, and the head of the U.S. Border Patrol certify that the U.S.-Mexico border is secure can illegal immigrants get temporary work visas; they can become citizens after the people now waiting in line in the legal immigration system. But Paul starts from the premise that the U.S. isn't going to deport the millions of immigrants already here, and he pledges, "If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."

Paul has been path-to-citizenship-curious for a while — in November, he earned the ire of immigration hardliners by saying he wouldn't "rule out" an "eventual path" to normalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the country. But openly embracing a mechanism — even a long, expensive, arduous one — to grant citizenship to the millions of mostly Latino undocumented immigrants is an evolution.

Paul's traditional stance on the topic is hinted at in the first words on his immigration policy page: "I do not support amnesty." In 2011, Paul proposed amending the Constitution to keep the children of illegal immigrants from automatic citizenship. In 2010, he promoted his idea for an underground, electronic fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration.

Paul isn't the first Republican to back immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship: Republicans make up half of the Senate Gang of Eight that's planning to release a comprehensive immigration bill next month, and the Republican National Committee, in a 2012 election postmortem released Monday, urged the party to "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform." But Paul's support is "significant" because he's "a favorite of Tea Party Republicans who are sometimes hostile to such an approach," says The Associated Press' Erica Werner. Like the RNC shift, Paul's reversal is based on the premise that failing to accept immigration reform is political suicide. That partly explains his speech on Tuesday, says Werner:

For Paul, there are political overtones to his newly articulated stance, since he's viewed as a potential presidential candidate and Hispanics are an increasingly important part of the electorate. Latino voters overwhelmingly backed President Barack Obama last year, helping seal his re-election, and Paul said the GOP needs to reverse that trend or risk "permanent minority status." [AP]

"Like many Republicans who back a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Paul argues Latinos should be a natural wellspring of GOP votes that the party has increasingly abandoned," says John Stanton at BuzzFeed. He argues that the GOP's antipathy toward illegal immigrants has kept Latinos from siding with the party on issues like abortion and gay marriage, adding, "That they have steadily drifted away from the GOP in each election says more about Republicans than it does Hispanics."

The problem, as The Week's Keith Wagstaff noted Monday, is that Latinos are ideologically more in alignment with Democrats than Republicans. "If Rand Paul's amnesty program becomes law, he will for certain never be president because, after all, he'll help solidify instant legions of liberal Democrat voters into the mix and for generations to come," says Debbie Schlussel at her blog.

And there's risk for Paul on the other side of the GOP spectrum, too. He's been walking a fine line in making himself acceptable to the Republican establishment and base while not alienating the younger, libertarian-leaning cohort he inherited from his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

If Paul can pull this off, though, he'll be in a good position for the 2016 presidential race, says Allysia Finley in The Wall Street Journal. Immigration reform is more associated with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another likely 2016 contender, and Paul's narrow win over Rubio in the CPAC straw poll over the weekend shows who has the most "enthusiasm among conservative activists, which is critical to winning the GOP primary." If a softer stance toward Latinos helps him win over the "swing state voters, independents, or minorities who are critical to winning the White House," Rand Paul may yet create a winning coalition.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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