March 20 (Bloomberg) -- Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky endorsed immigration changes that would give legal status to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in a move to broaden his appeal ahead of a potential 2016 Republican presidential bid.
Paul’s plan, outlined in a speech yesterday, would create work visas for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally and let Congress verify border security before revamping the nation’s immigration laws.
Paul set his proposal apart from one being crafted by a bipartisan group of senators, including another potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Marco Rubio of Florida. Their plan would provide a pathway to citizenship.
“I’m not creating a new line for citizenship,” Paul said on CNN yesterday. “I’m just saying, you get in the current line that exists.”
“You don’t have to go back home, but we also don’t want to put you at the front of the line because that’s unfair to people who’ve been waiting legally,” he told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Paul’s wariness over explicitly endorsing a pathway to citizenship emphasizes the political risks both he and Rubio are taking in advocating new immigration measures that remain unpopular with many in their party’s voting base. The Senate group has said it wants to unveil its plan next month.
The 50-year-old son of former U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate, is a leader of the limited-government Tea Party movement. Rand Paul’s decision to back a shift in immigration policy may give more Republicans in the right wing of the party the political support they need to back a rewrite of current law.
“I’m a conservative Republican who says we need to move forward on immigration reform,” Paul said on the conference call. “That’s a big step forward.”
Paul is basking in the media spotlight after narrowly beating Rubio last week in a 2016 straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. Rubio has been clear about his support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The Iowa Republican Party announced yesterday that Paul will be the keynote speaker at a party dinner May 10. The state hosts the first contest of the presidential primary season, so visits there by aspiring candidates are closely watched.
“Paul is pretty cleverly becoming a leader in the party, and he’s getting himself out there,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, who was an aide to former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
“By getting involved and opining on this, it makes him less radioactive to the more mainstream Republicans, and it’s a tack to the center, but a slight tack,” Feehery said.
Paul suggested giving “probationary work visas to immigrants who are willing to work,” in a speech yesterday to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington. He said the work visas would give their holders no special citizenship advantage because they would wait in the same line of immigrants applying from outside the U.S.
“If they want to be citizens, I’m open to debate as to what we do to move forward,” Paul said, acknowledging many immigrants may be stuck waiting indefinitely.
While Paul eschews the term “path to citizenship,” his proposal bears similarities to the Senate group’s principles. Those include allowing individuals who go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pay taxes and learn English, to eventually earn a green card.
Ronald Zahn, a Tea Party leader from Wisconsin, said he gets nervous when he hears politicians talk about a “pathway to citizenship,” emphasizing the political perils involved for both Republicans.
“It implies that those who did something illegally can get ahead of those trying to do it legally,” said Zahn, a 73-year-old retired school teacher. He expressed confidence that neither Rubio nor Paul would support such a plan.
“We’re not going to do any special pathways that discourage people from doing it the right way,” Rubio said yesterday in an interview on CNN. Separately, Rubio declined to comment on Paul’s plan, saying he hadn’t seen it.
Both senators avoided any significant mention of the immigration issue when they spoke last week at CPAC, a gathering that attracts limited-government activists. Those activists, many of whom strongly oppose changing immigration laws, have played a significant role in the Republican presidential nomination process.
“This was a very Pollyannish speech,” Muzaffar Chishti, director of migration policy at New York University’s law school, said of Paul’s speech yesterday. “What he doesn’t make clear is if people should get permanent legal residency.”
Paul’s announcement deals with his own political ambitions and the importance of immigration as an issue to the Republican Party, said Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist and former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush.
“There is no Tea Party in the political sense, no central leader, no candidates, so Rand Paul is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Blakeman said. “He is coming to the center and adopting policies that a Republican nominee would have to support if you want the nomination, and more importantly, to be electable.”
Paul’s position differs from the principles of the bipartisan Senate group in other ways. Paul proposed no additional obligations for employers.
“My plan will not impose a national ID card or mandatory E-Verify, forcing businesses to become policemen,” he said.
Meanwhile, like the Senate group, Paul proposed allowing work permits and other authorizations only after Congress certifies that U.S. border control has been improved.
Under a five-year provision in his plan, Congress would hold annual votes following a report from an inspector general verifying that the U.S. border is secure.
House Speaker John Boehner yesterday avoided questions on whether he supports steps that could lead to citizenship for those who came to the U.S. illegally. Still, the Ohio Republican said overhauling the nation’s immigration system is a “top priority” in the Republican-led chamber.
Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate group, said his party will have to embrace a path to citizenship if they don’t want to block a new immigration law.
“There will never be a bill without a pathway to citizenship signed by the president,” Graham said. “And in turn there will never be a pathway to citizenship without a new immigration system replacing the current one.”
Boehner said he met with four Republicans from a bipartisan House group that has been meeting in secret for about four years to work on an immigration plan. Boehner said the Republican members are “basically in agreement” with the Democrats on how to proceed on legislation.
On March 18, the Republican National Committee released recommendations on how the party could find more electoral success, including one that called for its leaders to “embrace and champion comprehensive” immigration reform.
“If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink,” the committee said in the report.
Exit polls of voters in the Nov. 6 election showed President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. Republican nominee Mitt Romney took 27 percent, down from 31 percent for the party’s presidential ticket in 2008, 44 percent in 2004 and 35 percent in 2000.
Among the first bills Paul co-sponsored after arriving in Washington in January 2011 was one to amend the Constitution to end birthright U.S. citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. Citizenship would be granted to those born in the U.S. to a parent who is a citizen, has permanent residency status or serves in the U.S. military.
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