Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky today endorsed a pathway to citizenship 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, but the libertarian suggested that people who are in the country illegally should be able to stay without returning to their home countries.
He sought to clarify his remarks in a conference call with reporters this later this afternoon, saying, "If they want to be citizens, I am open to debate as to what we do to move forward."
But Paul admitted that he was shying away from "pathway to citizenship" language because it's polarizing and detrimental to the debate.
"I think we are trapped," Paul said. "The immigration debate has been trapped and it's been polarized by two terms: 'path to citizenship' and amnesty.
"So everybody who doesn't want anything to move forward calls every proposal that somebody else wants 'pathway to citizenship' or 'you are granting amnesty.' Can't we have reform and just not call them by certain names that discourage the process from going forward?"
When asked on the call whether he would support a Senate bill to give a pathway for current undocumented immigrants to get a green card, he said, "Yeah, I would, as long as they don't get in a new line."
"They would just get in the current line," Paul said. "As long as those here want to work, I would get them work visas. And as long as they want to apply, then you would get in the normal line for citizenship that's already available so it's not a new pathway. It's an existing pathway and then what we have to figure out is if the existing pathway isn't working; how do we fix the existing pathway and I'm willing to look at all of those things."
Under his framework, 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.
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While Paul danced around the use of the term "a path to citizenship," he said his speech today 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.