The debate over whether Paul did or did not embrace a “path to citizenship” was reminiscent of a similar controversy this month when former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), who had previously favored a citizenship route, appeared to back off the position in an interview promoting his new book on the topic.
“I think there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally,” he said in an interview.
Later, though, Bush suggested he wasn’t foreclosing on the idea.
After Paul’s speech, he was mobbed by reporters on Capitol Hill demanding to know whether he had intended to back citizenship.
“I didn’t use the word ‘citizenship’ at all this morning,” he said in one conversation.
In another, however, he endorsed the key minimum features that most advocates agree constitute a path to citizenship.
He said there should be no prohibition on those now here illegally eventually becoming citizens. Nor, he said, does he think that the illegal immigrants should have to return to their home countries for any period before or after they seek temporary legalized status and eventually citizenship.
Still, he rejected the phrase as a symbol that could turn off conservative voters.
“Everybody's going crazy — is it a pathway or isn’t it a pathway?” he said. “If everything is dumbed down to ‘pathway to citizenship’ or ‘amnesty,’ we’re not going to be able to move forward, because we’ve polarized the country.”
For conservatives such as Paul, and to a lesser extent Bush, who is also widely viewed as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, it could be politically foolhardy to ignore the GOP’s new push for a more inclusive approach to immigration.
But at the same time, embracing the phrase “pathway to citizenship” could be a perilous move in a Republican presidential primary in which conservatives — many of whom strongly oppose immigration change — play an outsize role.
“I think there’s some voices in the GOP who are mistakenly trying to scare folks away from working toward an immigration solution by saying it will be political suicide to give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship” and an eventual right to vote, Republican strategist Ana Navarro said.
The irony for Paul was that scuffle threatened to overshadow a speech in which he intended to robustly plead with fellow Republicans to embrace an overhaul of the immigration system or risk permanent minority status for their party. It came a day after the Republican National Committee released a somber autopsy of the GOP’s November election losses that called for the party to embrace and champion the immigration system.