While a slew of Republican leaders, and now the Republican National Committee itself, have endorsed the idea of reforming U.S. immigration laws, only a handful—Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Arizona Senator John McCain, and now Rand Paul—have said explicitly that by reform, they mean the right eventually to get citizenship.
Conservatives have a tough time talking about citizenship because the party has effectively equated it with so-called amnesty, or a free pass for breaking the law. Amnesty wasn’t always a dirty word. Discussing immigration reform during the 1984 presidential debate, Ronald Reagan said “I believe in amnesty.” By the time the U.S. debated an immigration overhaul again, in 2006, the GOP had undergone a dramatic shift. The number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. had quadrupled, and any Republican who endorsed some version of a path to citizenship—no matter how onerous—could expect a barrage of attack ads and angry phone calls from members of highly organized anti-immigrant groups.
In this latest round, most Republicans are no longer railing against immigration, but they’ve grown downright tongue-tied about what to say instead. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has spent the past few weeks backpedaling and flip-flopping on whether he believes that some undocumented immigrants should be granted an earned path to citizenship—rather than some other form of temporary legalized status. (Bush now says he has always believed in both.)
In an interview last week, Bush told me that the difference between the two didn’t matter as much as people think, because according to polls, most immigrants don’t want to be citizens anyway. The Pew Hispanic Center has evidence to the contrary: It found that 92 percent of illegal immigrants say they would become citizens if offered the chance.
In Congress, House Speaker John Boehner claims his caucus is working on an immigration reform bill, but he won’t say whether a citizenship option is included. Even the usually plain-spoken Senator Rand Paul found a way to hedge: “I think the conversation needs to start by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants,” he told an audience Tuesday at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the country’s most influential Latino business group. “If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.” (When pressed later in the day, Paul clarified: Illegal immigrants, he said, would get in the “normal line for citizenship.”)
Other Republicans will only dance around the subject. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor also spoke to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday and alluded to the debate over immigration reform with a story about his grandparents’ immigrant journey to the U.S. while fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia. If his party had something more to offer than platitudes, Cantor wasn’t going to be the one to say it.