Sen. Rand Paul spoke this morning at Hispanic Chamber of Commerce endorsing comprehensive immigration reform. The last politician to speak so fluently and so affectionately about immigrants and their culture was President George W. Bush. That will freak out anti-immigration activists, but it is a good sign that staunch conservatism is in no way incompatible with a pro-immigration policy outlook.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press)

In prepared remarks he recollected, “I lived, worked, played and grew up alongside Latinos. As a teenager I worked alongside immigrants mowing lawns and putting in landscaping around businesses.” And he powerfully rejected the notion that immigrants come looking for a handout: “Growing up in Texas, I never met a Latino who wasn’t working. . . . The Republican Party has insisted for years that we stand for freedom and family values. I am most proud of my party when it stands for both. The vast majority of Latino voters agree with us on these issues but Republicans have pushed them away with harsh rhetoric over immigration.” In words coincidentally echoing the Republican National Committee report, he stated, “Somewhere along the line Republicans have failed to understand and articulate that immigrants are an asset to America, not a liability.”

He appealed to such voters with an embrace of education, something both President Bush and his brother Jeb have done. (“For the American Dream to be achievable for all, we have to have an educational system that believes that all students have the capability to succeed. Unfortunately, the education establishment seems to casually discard Latinos, blacks, and others into crummy schools with no hope. I argue that the struggle for a good education is the civil rights issue of our day.”)

On immigration policy he argued that border security is essential and must come first but that Republicans ” must embrace more legal immigration.” He reiterates yesterday’s RNC appeal: “Immigration reform will not occur until Conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation.”

His actual proposal is quite restricted, however. In fact it is not clear he favors citizenship at all — the word does not appear in his speech. Instead he favors border security to be certified by an inspector general and then ratified by Congress before moving on to available work visas for those here illegally. He argues:

The modernization of our visa system and border security would allow us to accurately track immigration.

It would also enable us to let more people in and allow us to admit we are not going to deport the millions of people who are currently here illegally.

This is where 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.

What isn’t clear is whether there would be any penalties, fines or other conditions on obtaining a visa. Moreover, unlike almost every other proposal, he opposes “a national ID card or mandatory E-Verify, forcing businesses to become policemen.”

There are lots of policy blanks and issues aside from that. (For example, how can people live in limbo if Congress has to certify border security each year? What about the children of immigrants who were brought here illegally?) But that is not the sort of speech Rand Paul gives; his style is more sweeping and less technical. The most important and effective part of the speech came at the end:

I am a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez gives some advice that Republicans might consider: “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, . . . life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

Likewise, Republicans need to give birth to a new attitude toward immigrants, an attitude that sees immigrants as assets not liabilities.

Beyond the immigrant issue this is an essential insight for Republicans, who have made refusal to change a fetish. Refusal to change is neither conservative nor ideal. Not every innovation or adjustment is a sell-out of principle; the desire to speak in terms ordinary people understand is laudable. Somewhere the right wing (or parts thereof) got the idea, like religious orders fixed at a point in the 18th- or 19th-centuries, that conservatism had be preserved in pristine state circa 1980. But politics isn’t taxidermy, and the ability to retain timeless values while adjusting in policy and rhetoric is essential to any governing philosophy.

I don’t necessarily agree with the immigration formula Paul has come up with, but in echoing Sen. Marco Rubio (“What we have now is de facto amnesty”) he helps move the debate forward. The anti-immigration crowd is quickly going to run out of conservative idols on which to hitch their star; the smart ones have figured out that immigration exclusion isn’t good for the country or for their party.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.