WASHINGTON – Sen. Rand Paul, one of the most conservative members of his chamber and a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, on Tuesday endorsed a new path to legalization for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
Nothing in his vision would preclude eventual citizenship for the immigrants, but the Kentucky senator never mentioned that term outright – sparking a day of debate that highlighted continuing confusion among Republicans, who are anxious for an immigration position that might appeal to a growing bloc of Hispanic voters.
In the search for that position, however, some in the GOP fear alienating their conservative base, many of whom think full citizenship would amount to an amnesty for lawbreakers that would encourage more illegal immigration.
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 Gov. Jeb Bush, 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 wasnt foreclosing on the idea.
After Pauls speech, he was mobbed by reporters on Capitol Hill demanding to know whether he had intended to back citizenship.
I didnt 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.
Everybodys going crazy – is it a pathway or isnt it a pathway? he said. If everything is dumbed down to pathway to citizenship or amnesty, were not going to be able to move forward because weve polarized the country.
For conservatives such as Paul, and to a lesser extent Bush, both of whom are widely viewed as potential 2016 presidential candidates, it could be politically foolhardy to ignore from the GOPs 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 outsized role.
I think theres 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.