What's Rand Paul's real position on immigration reform?

The Kentucky senator endorses citizenship, sort of, for undocumented workers

Sen. Rand Paul
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) supports a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. Or maybe it's more of a trail to citizenship, or a sidewalk, or a waterslide.

What Paul has made clear is that he supports some sort of immigration reform. What's not clear is what that position should be called.

Paul tackled immigration reform this week in what was billed as a major speech, saying that he was eager to "become part of the solution." The Associated Press, previewing that speech based on a copy of his prepared remarks, reported that Paul would specifically be "endorsing a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants."

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That Paul supported the so-called "pathway to citizenship" — a general term for putting undocumented workers already in the country on a track to legal status — immediately sparked reports that he'd broken with much of the GOP on the issue. It also sparked a quick pushback from Paul's office that the senator never actually endorsed that position.

The gripe was one of semantics. In an afternoon conference call with reporters, Paul clarified that while he did believe undocumented immigrants should be offered work visas and allowed to stay in the country, he did not support the creation of a special "pathway" to expedite that process.

"If we get trapped too much in these descriptive terms, whether we're for or against a path to citizenship, I think what we're gonna do is polarize the debate," he reportedly said.

Paul's clarification only left him open to mockery on the right, where amnesty is the descriptor of choice for citizenship schemes. "This is hilarious," says Mark Krikorian at National Review:

"Path to citizenship" is itself a euphemism, one of many dreamed up to avoid the A-word...The fact that they need to keep dreaming up new euphemisms once everyone understands what the old ones stand for should be a sign that the underlying policy is the problem, not the labels attached to it. [National Review]

Paul tried to walk a fine line, but ended up miscalculating how his speech would be received by the press, writes Dave Weigel at Slate:

Paul's dilemma was obvious. He had a reservoir of trust with conservatives. He did not want to alienate those who immediately put immigration reformers in the "sell-out" column. But when you alert the media to a policy speech, the media's going to look for a new policy. [Slate]

After a day of clarifications, most media outlets continued to describe Paul's position as one of support for a pathway to citizenship, noting that even if he disliked the term, it was an apt shorthand for it. The AP updated its original story to reflect the discrepancy in verbiage, but maintained its original assertion. That's because, though Paul remained hesitant to embrace the language, his position sounded remarkably similar to still-developing "pathway" proposals.

From Talking Points Memo 's Benjy Sarlin:

The plan Paul laid out in his afternoon call sounded identical in principle to plans put forward by a group of bipartisan senators and by the White House, both of which contain a so-called "path to citizenship" that would allow illegal immigrants here today to obtain green cards (after meeting certain conditions) and eventually naturalize. And it was easily more progressive than the proposal outlined by Jeb Bush in his recent book, which would have specifically barred illegal immigrants from becoming citizens. [TPM]

In other words, for all the brouhaha over word choice, Paul has staked out a position to the left of the majority of his party. Though his position differs in some ways from other immigration reform proposals, his remarks and subsequent clarifications reveal that he's at least open to some sort of pathway, in substance if not in name.

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