Rand Paul and why the ‘pathway to citizenship’ question is so delicate for the GOP

March 19, 2013

Lawmakers in both parties are as keen as ever to get a deal done to reform the nation's immigration laws.

Yet, the road to reaching a broad agreement may be long and winding, as leaders grapple with the most politically sensitive topics in the talks. And for Republicans, nothing has proved to be more sensitive in recent weeks than the question of whether illegal immigrants should be offered a pathway to citizenship.


Thousands of amnesty supporters march up Broadway during a May Day immigration rally in Los Angeles. (Reuters)

Two leading Republicans, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), have sought to walk a very fine line on the issue. A bipartisan group of senators trying to hash out a reform package supports a road to citizenship.

On Tuesday, Paul delivered a speech in which he endorsed a pathway to legal status without saying outright that he favors having it lead to full citizenship. In an interview with The Washington Post later in the day, Paul sought to offer more clarity on his view, noting that he did not use the word "citizenship" in his remarks.

"I didn’t use the word citizenship at all this morning,” he said. "Basically what I want to do is to expand the worker visa program, have border security and then as far as how people become citizens, there already is a process for how people become citizens. The main difference is I wouldn’t have people be forced to go home. You’d just get in line. But you get in the same line everyone is in.”

A Paul adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, said the blueprint Paul is endorsing doesn’t make it any easier to attain citizenship than current law allows. Though current law requires that illegal immigrants return to their home countries before applying for citizenship.

Sound familiar? That's because it's not the first time the "pathway to citizenship" question has aroused some confusion after a prominent Republican weighed in on the matter.

Earlier this month, Bush, who previously favored a citizenship route, appeared to back off the position in an interview promoting his new book on immigration. "I think there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally,” he said.

Later though, Bush suggested he wasn't foreclosing on the idea. "I think we need comprehensive reform, and if there is a path to citizenship that has enough of a realization that we have to respect the rule of law, then so be it,” he said. A Bush spokesman added that Bush's book doesn't rule out a path to citizenship.

So why all the fine-tuning? One possible -- and obvious -- explanation: Politics.

For conservatives like Paul, and to a lesser extent, Bush -- who are widely viewed as potential 2016 presidential candidates -- it would be politically foolhardy to stay away from the GOP's new push for a more inclusive approach to immigration.

At the same time, endorsing a "pathway to citizenship" in no uncertain terms could be a perilous move in a Republican presidential primary in which conservatives -- many of whom still strongly oppose immigration reform -- play an outsize role.

"I think there's some voices in the GOP who are mistakenly trying to scare folks away from working towards an immigration solution by saying it will be political suicide to give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship" and, an eventual right to vote, said Republican strategist Ana Navarro.

All that said, it's important to note the significance of Republicans having a debate in the first place about what a path to legalization should look like. On the heels of two consecutive election cycles in which the GOP campaign rhetoric included a call to "complete the danged fence" on the border and an embrace of "self-deportation," that a pathway to legal status is now a focus of Republican talking points reflects a national debate that is tilting toward reformers and away from hard-liners.

But make no mistake: There are some tough questions that need to be sorted out before any kind of large agreement can be reached on changes to the nation's immigration laws. At or near the top of that list are questions about a pathway to citizenship.

Updated at 2:19 p.m. with Paul's brief interview with The Washington Post

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this post

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · March 19, 2013