Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that Sen. Rand Paul had called in his speech for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. His speech did not include a reference to a path for citizenship, and the story has been corrected.
The dramatic shift in the Republican Party on immigration continued Tuesday, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a conservative tea party icon and possible 2016 presidential contender, endorsed an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would allow the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain legalized status.
“Immigration will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. That’s why I’m here today: to begin that conversation and become part of the solution,” he said in a breakfast speech Tuesday morning before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
Paul’s position is especially significant because a number of other Republicans have been debating whether their party should endorse allowing people who broke U.S. immigration laws to remain in the country without fear of deportation.
He made his comments a day after the Republican National Committee released a somber autopsy of the GOP’s November election losses. It called for the party to embrace and champion an overhaul of the immigration system as its only hope to appeal to a growing bloc of Hispanic voters.
Paul outlined his own principles for an overhaul in a speech that elaborated on a proposal he made first in a Washington Times column in February.
The Kentucky senator outlined a path to legalization that would be more demanding than the principles advanced by a bipartisan group of senators who aim to introduce legislation in April. That group includes another likely 2016 contender and possible Paul rival, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Paul also called for expanding legal immigration — not a universally held position in the Republican Party. Some of its members believe that allowing more legal immigration will make it harder for Americans to find jobs.
Paul said he sought to turn illegal immigrants into taxpayers, which could ultimately lead to their becoming citizens. Despite early reports that he would endorse a pathway to citizenship in the speech, however, he did not specifically address the citizenship issue.
That is key because Republicans have been vigorously debating among themselves whether full citizenship should eventually be available to those who came to the United States illegally.
Paul said he would want Congress to be involved in certifying that border security has improved sufficiently to open the legalization path, a requirement that many immigrant advocates are sure to oppose as unnecessarily injecting politics into the process.
“Some may object to this,” he acknowledged. “But if we don’t, I don’t think we’ll get conservatives on board.”
He suggested that within two years, illegal immigrants should be able to seek temporary worker visas that would allow them to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.
Many news outlets, including The Washington Post, had reported that Paul would back a “path to citizenship” in his speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Those reports started circulating Monday evening, when the Associated Press obtained an advance copy of Paul’s remarks.
“The AP story was wrong, which spurred a lot of erroneous reports,” Paul’s office said in a statement. “He does not mention ‘path to citizenship’ in his speech at all.”
One Paul adviser told The Post that the path Paul is endorsing does not make it any easier to attain citizenship than current law allows.
“They would get into the back of the line and get no special privileges to do so,” said the adviser, who was not authorized to comment publicly. “What his plan is extending to them is a quicker path to normalization, not citizenship, and being able to stay, work and pay taxes legally.”
Later Tuesday, Paul attempted to clarify his position on the citizenship question. “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.”
Accepting some kind of legal status for nearly all of those now living in the country illegally is becoming an increasingly common position within the GOP, with most debate centering around the question of when and how those newly legalized residents might seek citizenship.
That represents a near-complete turnaround for a party whose presidential nominee just last year advocated policies that would make life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they would chose to “self-deport.”
Increasingly isolated are those voices that say allowing immigrants to remain in the country would represent an unacceptable “amnesty.”
Recalling his childhood growing up in Texas and speaking several times in Spanish, Paul told attendees at Tuesday’s breakfast that changing the party’s position is a political imperative for the GOP.
“Republicans need to become parents of a new future with Latino voters or we will need to resign ourselves to being in a permanent minority status,” he said.
“Republicans have been losing both the respect and votes of a group of people who already identify with many of our beliefs in family, faith and conservative values. Hispanics should be a natural and sizable part of the Republican base,” he said. “But they have steadily drifted away from the GOP in each election. I think this says more about Republicans than it does about Hispanics.”
Even so, significant elements of the party’s base remain opposed, and passage of immigration legislation — particularly in the GOP-held House — is far from certain.
In a speech just before Paul’s, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the Republicans’ second-in-command in the Senate, called for fixing what he said is a broken immigration system. But he acknowledged that the issue remains “tremendously controversial” on Capitol Hill and did not endorse specific prescriptions for change other than aiming to attract more “job creators” to migrate to the United States.
Still, advocates believe a broad bipartisan vote in the Senate on the issue could serve to pressure the House. Support from Paul would be especially useful. Just last weekend, he won a straw poll as the favored presidential candidate of attendees of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) would not comment specifically on Paul’s immigration speech, or on the report released Monday by GOP leaders that called for comprehensive immigration reform. But he said the House would continue working on the issue in the coming months.
The speaker reminded reporters that he met last week with GOP members of a bipartisan immigration working group in the House that he said has come up with “a pretty responsible solution” for tackling the complex issues surrounding immigration.
“This is just the beginning of the process,” Boehner said at a morning news conference. “A lot of education needs to be done, because more than half of our members have never dealt with the issue of immigration reform, both on the legal side and on the illegal side.”
Members of his leadership team have held several “listening sessions” with GOP lawmakers to discuss immigration further, Boehner said. “I think you’re going to see more forums to bring our members up to speed on the literally dozens and dozens of issues involved in immigration reform,” he added.
Ed O’Keefe and Aaron Blake contributed to this story.
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