A key Republican – this time a conservative Tea Party Senator – has come out in support of immigration reform and called for his party to embrace the nation’s growing Latino population.
“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution,” said Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul. “I am here today to begin that conversation,” he added in an address to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce address this morning. Stressing the need for his party to reach out to Latinos, Paul struck a very different tone from some of his previous views on immigration, including his support to “have the courts review whether or not if you break the law to come into the U.S., whether your child would be a citizen just by being born here.”
Today, though, Senator Paul spoke of his immigrant grandparents, who spoke a different language (German) at home and church. Paul said he used to mow lawns in Texas as a teenager alongside Mexican immigrants and that “he never met a Latino who wasn’t working.” The Kentucky conservative Senator said he saw early on the effects of being undocumented, after a Hispanic immigrant worker told him he got paid $3.00 – not an hour, but a day.
“Republicans need to become parents of a new future with Latino voters or we need to resign ourselves to permanent minority status,” said Paul, adapting the phrase from a Spanish quote from 19th century philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. The Kentucky Senator then went on to say the Republican Party has to acknowledge it will not deport 12 million undocumented immigrants, and proposed first giving undocumented immigrants a certain number of temporary work visas, tying it to border security, and ensuring legal residents have a pathway to citizenship first. “If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you,” Paul said.
“This is not a comprehensive plan, but he is advancing ideas which could be incorporated into a broader bill,” says Alfonso Aguilar, Executive Director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. Hours after his speech, Paul spoke to reporters and added he does not believe in onerous fees or a fixed time period for undocumented immigrants to pursue legalization and eventual citizenship, “as long as they are in the back of the line.” As to his previous comments on the need to revisit the 14th amendment granting birthright citizenship, Paul said he is open to “rethinking” his position, since undocumented immigration would not be an issue if there is reform. He also said denying citizenship would be “hard on the kids.”
So how important is it to have one of the Senate’s most “mavericky” – a word used by Arizona State University political scientist Rodolfo Espino to describe Rand Paul – senators endorse immigration reform?
“I think it’s huge,” says Aguilar. “Rand Paul is a constitutional conservative, libertarians support him, and no one can say he’s a RINO (Republican in Name Only),” says Aguilar. “It’s actually very powerful.”
Rand Paul’s announcement comes as a bipartisan group of Senators are cobbling the finishing touches on an immigration reform proposal. In the Senate and even more so in the House, the question is whether Paul’s speech today will have an effect on legislators who have not endorsed reform before – especially those who oppose or have qualms about granting undocumented immigrants an eventual path to citizenship.
“I think it will have an effect,” says Espino. “If you have a Tea Party favorite like Rand Paul signaling ‘this is what we support,’ it could help mobilize those younger members in the House,” he says, though that is not a given. While Republicans like Paul have to compromise in the Democratic-led Senate, House members “are playing to their own Congressional districts, which have more conservative bases,” says Espino.
For now, one thing is for sure – the Kentucky Republican Senator is generating positive headlines. A Latino Decisions poll found Latino Independents, young adults, and even a quarter of Democrats more willing to consider voting for a Republican candidate who endorses immigration reform.
“Rand Paul is young, and he sees an electoral future,” says Northern Arizona University political scientist and NBC Latino contributor Stephen Nuño, who has been researching and writing on Republican Latino outreach. “He’s looking forward to 20 or 30 years in Congress and perhaps planning to run for president. This is a useful message to have,” Nuño adds.
And in an interesting comparison, the Kentucky Senator used the words of the father of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, to describe Republicans. “Life obliges them over and over to give birth to themselves,” said Rand Paul. “Likewise, Republicans need to give birth to a new attitude toward immigrants.” For the more romantic political observers, he also quoted Neruda.