WASHINGTON — Tea party hero Sen. Rand Paul on Tuesday backed a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, a fresh, strong signal that Republicans are coming to accept broad changes – and that Paul wants to widen his appeal.
“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation,” the Kentucky senator told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Let’s start that conversation by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants,” Paul said. “If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.”
Paul’s speech came a day after the Republican National Committee released a blistering state-of-the-party report that sharply criticized past efforts to attract minorities. To help woo Hispanics, it said, “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”
Paul, who has an eye on the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, will speak at the Iowa Republicans’ Lincoln Day Dinner on May 10. He said the purpose of his trip would be to reiterate Tuesday’s message and emphasize that Republicans needed to be “a more inclusive party.”
Paul would start a White House race with considerable strength. His father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, ran for the party’s nomination in 2008 and 2012 and retains a loyal following. When seeking his Senate seat in 2010, Rand Paul beat the Kentucky Republican establishment candidate for the nomination, making him an instant hero for grass-roots conservatives. Last month, he gave the tea party’s response to President Barack Obama after the State of the Union address.
Paul’s chief rival at the moment appears to be Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key congressional player in the immigration effort.
Rubio also has demonstrated considerable appeal to the very hard-core conservatives and libertarians Paul considers his base. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Paul won a straw poll but he beat Rubio by only 2 percentage points.
In Tuesday’s speech, Paul often spoke in Spanish, and he described a kinship with the Latino community.
“Growing up in Texas, I never met a Latino who wasn’t working,” he said. “I never met a new immigrant looking for a free lunch.”
Paul joined the chorus of Republicans lamenting the erosion of Hispanic voters. “Republicans have been losing both the respect and votes of a group of people who already identify with our belief in family, faith and conservative values,” he said.
“That they have steadily drifted away from the GOP in each election says more about Republicans than it does about Hispanics.”
Paul’s immigration proposal “will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line,” he said. “But what we have now is de facto amnesty.”
He said the borders must be secure before any plan for illegal immigrants to stay in the country was adopted. While he didn’t mention specifics as to how border security would improve, he wants Congress to agree each year that the borders are secure. Once it does, by the second year undocumented immigrants could be issued probationary work visas. They wouldn’t be able to get on a citizenship path before anyone who’s going through the process legally.
Paul was skittish about whether he approved of a special pathway to citizenship. He avoided answering the question directly, but he said it was crucial that no illegal immigrants would be able to jump in line in front of those who were seeking citizenship through legal channels.
Paul’s speech is likely to carry legislative significance, as senators are close to an agreement on a bipartisan measure that would create a path to citizenship.
A key roadblock has been conservative Republicans. Six years ago, they blocked a similar effort. But the dynamics changed when Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote last year.
Republicans returned to the negotiating table with an interest in appealing to Latino voters and helping to pull the party out of the political wilderness. Republican senators such as John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’d disavowed earlier support for comprehensive immigration legislation, joined together again with Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois.
Rubio joined the so-called “gang of eight” just before it unveiled its key principles, which include a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country, but not until the borders are secure.
Graham praised Paul’s decision Tuesday, which he saw as another example of the "wake-up call" that members of his party experienced after last year’s elections.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid, @francoordonez