Senator Rand Paul gave a much anticipated speech today on immigration reform that ended up being more revealing about the GOP’s struggles on the issue than you might have expected it to be. There was mass confusion about whether Paul supports a faster path to citizenship — confusion which itself shed light on the difficulties the GOP will face with the right wing if the party embraces something approaching real reform.

Initial reports said Senator Paul would outline in his speech a faster path to citizenship. This led to optimism that real reform is within reach, since it would be meaningful if a conservative like Paul — who’s eying a presidential run in 2016 — joined with Republicans like John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham, who have embraced a path to citizenship. But then Paul’s advisers quickly clarified that he didn’t support a faster path to citizenship at all — and that his speech didn’t even mention a path to citizenship, instead focusing on legal status. This led to amusing headlines, such as this one on the New York Times homepage: “Paul implies support for citizenship path.”

What’s more, in the speech, Paul said he doesn’t support reform unless it comes with a Congressional vote deeming the border secure before any path to legal status can occur — which puts him to the right of McCain and Rubio.

All of this matters because it tells us how hard it is going to be to get conservatives to embrace anything approaching real reform. We don’t even know what Paul supports on citizenship right now — he appears to be trying to keep it vague. Either Paul supports a path to citizenship that the bipartisan “gang of eight” in the Senate backs — which would result in citizenship in 13 years — but subject to a Congressional vote on border security. Or he supports the framework preferred by GOP Rep. Raul Labrador that would result in legal status but not citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants here.

This comes a day after the Republican National Committee released a big report which said Republicans must embrace “comprehensive immigration reform.” Tellingly, though, RNC chair Reince Priebus, when questioned by reporters, refused to say whether this meant Republicans should even support legalization.

Frank Sharry, the head of the pro-immigration America’s Voice, tells me the confusion reflects larger indecision on the part of Republicans: They know they have to be seen embracing some kind of reform but are wary of antagonizing the right — and are wary of creating a lot of Democratic voters. “They know they have to rip the Band Aid off and give them legal status, but the idea of them eventually becoming citizens scares them politically,” Sharry says. “So they’re trying to figure out how to make it look as if they’re being nice to the Latinos even as they make the path to citizenship long, hard, or even unattainable.”

Republicans are trying to figure out how to do “as little as possible to rehabilitate their relationship with Latinos,” Sharry says.

At bottom, Sharry says, this reflects a tough question Republicans face. Which is better for the party politically: Should they take minimal steps that show Latinos Republicans are willing to accept their presence in this country, albeit without giving them citizenship that turns them into voters? Or should they embrace real reform and hope Latinos give Republicans credit for it — encouraging Latinos to give the GOP a serious look on other issues?

McCain, Graham, and Rubio appear to have decided the latter option is best. Paul and other Republicans are not there yet.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.