(WASHINGTON) — Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky on Tuesday endorsed a permanent legal status for undocumented immigrants, adding his voice to the debate as separate groups on Capitol Hill search for a way forward on the thorny political issue and beginning “a dialogue between the GOP and Latinos.”
In his first major speech on the subject, Paul did not use the word “citizenship” in remarks before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, the libertarian suggested that people who are in the country illegally should be able to stay without returning to their home country.
Under his framework, however, undocumented immigrants who earn legal status would be permitted eventually to apply for citizenship, as long as they are in the back of the line of people seeking permanent residency and citizenship in the United States.
The issue of citizenship has been a thorny one throughout the immigration overhaul debate. Bipartisan negotiators in the Senate, including Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona, have agreed that undocumented immigrants should have the ability, after a long wait, to become citizens.
But some conservatives like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have suggested that the undocumented be allowed to stay in the United States and not be able to become citizens unless they first return to their home country.
While Paul danced around the use of the term “a path to citizenship,” he said his speech Tuesday was the start of a conversation on the topic. It could be key to passing a comprehensive bill. President Obama has said any bill must include a pathway to full citizenship.
Some advocates for a pathway to citizenship took Paul’s remarks to mean he was endorsing a path to full legal citizenship.
“I applaud and appreciate @SenRandPaul support for a path to citizenship. This is an important piece of immigration reform,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted.
The plan Paul laid out includes a probationary period for those who come to the United States illegally. It was a significant move for the Tea Party conservative, one day after the Republican National Committee laid out its “autopsy” with calls for a strong push toward attracting Hispanics to the party.
“If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you,” Paul told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, stressing that before there can be any kind of permanent legal status, the border must be secured.
That is how the conservative wing of the party will become part of the conversation, he said.
“In order to bring conservatives to this cause, however, those who work for reform must understand that a real solution must ensure that our borders are secure,” Paul said. “But we also must treat those who are already here with understanding and compassion without unduly rewarding them for coming here illegally.”
Paul said that once the border is secure, on which Congress would have to agree, progress could then be made on a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country, making the process a long one for those already here.
His plan begins with giving work visas to those already here “who are willing to come forward and work.” A bipartisan panel would decide on the number of visas per year.
“Fairness is a key in any meaningful immigration reform, but this fairness would cut both ways: The modernization of our visa system and our border security would allow us to accurately track immigration,” Paul said.
“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 already here.”
Paul noted that conservatives like him are “wary of amnesty” and his “plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line. …But what we have now is de facto amnesty,” Paul said, before calling for a “probationary period” for those who came here illegally to become legal, calling it a “middle ground” between amnesty and deportation.
Paul, 50, said the second year of the program would “begin expanding probationary work visas to immigrants who are willing to work” and Congress would vote every five years on a report that looks at whether the border is secure. In Paul’s proposal, high-tech visas would be increased and a special visa for entrepreneurs would also be issued. Paul’s speech was peppered with Spanish phrases from his childhood in Texas and his love of Hispanic culture, which were well-received by the audience, and his tone was welcoming, just what the RNC report called for Monday in its report on the 2013 presidential election loss.
“Republicans have been losing both the respect and votes of a group of people who already identify with many of our belief in family, faith and conservative values,” Paul said. “Hispanics should be a natural and sizable part of the Republican base. But they have steadily drifted away from the GOP in each election [and that] says more about Republicans than it does about Hispanics.”
And as the report laid out Monday, Paul admitted that “Republicans need to become parents of a new future with Latino voters or we will need to resign ourselves to permanent minority status.”
The move is also interesting in light of his possible 2016 presidential aspirations and the reality that GOP Republican presidential candidates will need to attract Hispanic voters if they are to get elected.
The son of former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, he spoke of his own German immigrant family and how when they came to this country they spoke both German and English.
“Republicans who criticize the use of two languages, I think, make a great mistake,” he said to applause, adding that his party “must embrace more legal immigration.”
Paul’s speech has some overlap with the proposal by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight. The group also wants to secure the border, boost legal immigration, as well as create a pathway to citizenship.
One difference is that he is not calling for a national ID card, or mandatory e-verify, saying that forces “business to become policeman.”
Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw-poll vote last week after his 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan two weeks ago.
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Dan Merica and Sophie Tatum, CNN
Dan Berman, CNN