In a debate filled with buzzwords that double as landmines, Republicans’ still-emerging efforts to grapple with immigration reform are dancing around the issue that may be the linchpin in Congress this year: whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to achieve citizenship.
Today, tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., became the latest prominent Republican to confuse the immigration conversation by avoiding specific language on citizenship — perhaps by design.
Paul lent his growing political weight to the issue with a speech widely interpreted as endorsing a pathway to citizenship. But he did so without making clear what that path would look like, or by even using the words “citizen” or “citizenship” – and of course steering far clear of any hint of a word like “amnesty.”
The outline of Paul’s plan was so vague that he held an afternoon conference call with reporters to clarify he could support a road to permanent legal status for undocumented immigrants as long as they went to the back of the existing line. They would not have to return to their home country. That sounds an awful lot like what a bipartisan group of senators are proposing. But Paul said he doesn’t want to call it a pathway to citizenship.
“The immigration debate has been trapped by two terms: pathway to citizenship and amnesty,” Paul said, wondering aloud why there can’t be a reform debate that leaves those two terms behind.
Related: Rand Paul Makes Immigration Pitch
It suggests a party that’s wrestling deeply with how to address issues around illegal immigration without alienating either Latino voters or a GOP base that continues to deride notions of citizenship for illegal immigrants as dangerous for both the party and the country.
Perhaps paradoxically, the careful language being used by Republicans has immigration-reform advocates hopeful that a major immigration bill will be passed this year – most likely with the support of GOP leaders and a large chunk of the party.
“They’re really trying to find the sweet spot. It’s hard for them – they’ve moved a huge distance in a short time,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform group America’s Voice, which has frequently criticized lawmakers for standing in the way of a path to citizenship.
“Republicans are trying to find a place where they’re pro-Latino, but not attacked from the right. It’s a hard place to find,” Sharry said.
If this is strategy, it’s easy to be confused by it.
Paul’s speech came a day after the Republican National Committee’s much-awaited “autopsy” of the 2012 election included an endorsement of “comprehensive immigration reform.” But RNC Chairman Reince Priebus pointedly refused to say whether that should include a pathway to citizenship – a concept many in his party deride as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
Related: GOP Releases 2012 ‘Autopsy’
In the House, Speaker John Boehner said a working group is close to reaching agreement on immigration-reform principles. But he isn’t saying whether it will include a path to citizenship, calling it one of “a lot of issues in here that have to be dealt with.”
And earlier this month, former Gov. Jeb Bush shocked many observers by reversing his previous openness to a pathway to citizenship. He wrote in a new book that in his view, “those who violated the laws can remain, but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”
Bush – long a thought leader on immigration issues inside the Republican Party – quickly softened that stance by saying the book was written before a bipartisan consensus began to emerge around the concept of citizenship. Still, he maintains that he’s not sure how a bill can be crafted that creates a pathway to citizenship while also respecting the “rule of law.”
This is no small issue. It’s easy to say you want no special pathway for citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or that they should be forced to get “in the back of the line” behind those going through legal channels to achieve citizenship. But that has huge practical implications.
Current law doesn’t allow for people who are now here illegally to apply for citizenship, and the number of green cards available to non-citizens would be swamped by 11 million new applications anyway. Short of “self-deportation” – Mitt Romney’s infamous campaign prescription – it’s hard to see how the issue of those 11 million are solved without some kind of new pathway.
So why the optimism? At the same time many Republicans are choosing their words with extreme precision, the Senate is moving forward on a bill that would include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
That effort enjoys the support of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The Senate bill may end up subsuming all other resistance – or at least giving other Republicans the cover they need to support a pathway. Notably, Paul’s omission of the word “citizenship” today didn’t prevent pro-reform senators including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., from applauding his speech.
Even in the GOP-controlled House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has softened his stance after initially saying he would not support a path to citizenship.
Perhaps the most telling sign that immigration reform is on track is that Democrats aren’t attacking Republicans over their nuanced language. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader on immigration-reform efforts in Congress, today said he’s confident that Republicans will wind up backing a path to citizenship, not just an alternate legal status.
“They and I understand that we should not legislate a permanent non-citizen underclass. I think they agree with me and many of the leading Republicans also agree,” Gutierrez said.
Related: Democrats Push for Pathway
They may be moving slowly, but at least Republicans are showing that they’re open to moving, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which is working toward a comprehensive bill that includes a pathway to citizenship.
“The congressional Republicans are approaching this the right way. They are taking clear steps forward, but they’re staying close to their base,” Noorani said. “They’re trying to be part of a solution, and that’s 180 degrees different from where Republicans wanted to be two years ago.”