Conservatives on Immigration: Reformers in Name Only?

Senators like Rand Paul are demanding a tougher immigration bill. Reform advocates must decide if they're being sincere -- or trying to kill the bill.
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Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

When it comes to immigration reform, Senator Rand Paul says he is only trying to help. Should immigration-reform advocates believe him?

On Wednesday, Paul, the Tea Party Republican from Kentucky, stood before a phalanx of cameras and microphones in a Capitol Hill hotel where he'd just given a speech. "I want to vote for immigration reform," he told the group of reporters. But in order to meet his standards, the bill needed some changes, such as putting it in the hands of Congress to judge whether the border was sufficiently secure.

A number of conservative politicians are using a version of this line. They say they support immigration reform in the abstract, but in practice, the legislation is never good enough. As the immigration debate opened in the Senate on Wednesday, this was the major question facing the bill's proponents: make the bill more conservative to meet this group's demands? Or refuse, on the grounds that these right-wingers are never going to support the final bill anyway?

At the moment, this is the strategic dilemma on which everything hangs. If reformers decide to ignore Paul and other conservatives, they might find themselves with a bill, rammed through the Senate with mostly Democratic votes, that the House will never consider. But if they cater to his wishes, they might give away the store only to find they still don't have his support.

Paul, for his part, insists he is being sincere. Whatever bill comes out of the Senate is not going to have a chance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives unless it appeals more to people like him, he contends. "My suggestion to those in the Senate who are in charge of the bill is, Come to people like me, who want to vote for it but are not quite there yet, and say to us, 'What would it take to bring you home?' They did this with Senator [Orrin] Hatch, and he made the bill a lot better. He expanded the visas for the high-skilled workers, which is a great idea." Paul said he has been talking to one of the bill's authors, Republican Marco Rubio, about the legislation.

Paul was speaking at a forum put on by the American Principles Project, an idiosyncratic conservative group: It is anti-abortion, pro-gold standard, and strongly in favor of immigration reform. A Hispanic pastor from Virginia opened with a prayer in which he thanked the Lord "in advance for comprehensive immigration reform."

The senator spoke movingly about his immigrant great-grandfather from Germany, about the need to "put a human face on immigration." He talked about calling immigrants "undocumented" rather than "illegal," and expressed support for bilingualism. He spoke a few lines of the Spanish he learned growing up in the Houston area -- "un poco Spanglish, un poco Tex-Mex," he joked.

All these are signals, to immigration reformers, that Paul gets where they are coming from and wants a bill to pass. Alfonso Aguilar, the head of the group that hosted the event, was encouraged by the senator's speech. "I think he is for a path to legal status, which is what Latinos care about," Aguilar told me. "I think his vote is very important. If he votes for this bill, it will send a very strong message to Tea Party conservatives."

At the same time, Aguilar doesn't agree with Paul's proposed tweaks to the bill. Having Congress vote every year on whether it considers border security adequate would keep the issue perpetually politicized, he said. It's hard enough to get Congress to have this vote once; "can you imagine every year having this vote?" he asked.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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