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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.

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.

For Aguilar, a staunch social conservative and former Bush Administration official, the immigration debate has been wrenching, as those he thought were allies have turned out to be less than supportive. Last time I saw Aguilar, in November, we were listening to a speech by the Cuban-American Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another Tea Partier who claims to favor immigration reform in the abstract. "Republicans have got to do a better job with the Hispanic community," Cruz said back then. He added, "Immigration matters, especially tone. No one is going to vote for you if they think you don't like them."

But now, Cruz has emerged as one of the major opponents of the reform bill, even using the term "amnesty," which makes reformers recoil. Cruz hasn't flip-flopped -- during his Senate election last year, or when he was driving around Texas with a reporter for the New Yorker, he never said he was in favor of letting currently undocumented immigrants eventually become citizens -- he's just been very, very careful in his wording.

To proponents, the pathway to citizenship is immigration reform. It's the soul of the legislation; without it, you're not really reforming anything. But a couple of other conservative senators are claiming they favor reform, while decrying anything they see as amnesty. There's Cruz's fellow Texan, John Cornyn, who is also trying to beef up the bill to include more border security; and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is running the floor debate on the bill for Republicans, but says he regrets his vote for amnesty in 1986 and is determined not to be fooled again.

Proponents of the current bill suspect that these conservatives are Reformers in Name Only. They're trying to have it both ways -- letting pro-reform groups like churches, Hispanic voters, and Chamber of Commerce types think that they're for it, while assuring the Tea Party and conservative grassroots that they're not. When push comes to shove, reformers suspect, these senators will always find a reason the bill's not good enough for them to vote for. And so trying to please them is a fool's errand.

That's the view of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He has termed Cornyn's requirements a "poison pill" and said he won't make the bill's border security provisions -- which already include unprecedented levels of border-control spending and a security "trigger" before legalization will be allowed -- any tougher than they already are.

But for immigration reform to succeed, something has to get through the House. And Paul is right when he says, as he did Wednesday, "The bill's not there yet in the Senate, and the House is in a much different place."

Aguilar and other reform proponents aren't giving up on getting Paul's vote, though they wonder how high a price they'll be forced to pay for it. But other conservatives they know are a lost cause. Cruz, for one, has been a terrible disappointment, Aguilar said.

"Senator Cruz doesn't care about immigration. It's very upsetting," Aguilar told me. "At this point, I am totally disappointed with Ted Cruz. I agree with him on 95 percent of issues. He's clearly Hispanic. But he doesn't seem to understand how this affects us politically. He doesn't understand that you don't have to abandon our conservative principles to be constructive on this issue."