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Can Rand Paul Bring the Tea Party Along on Immigration?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Paul announced his support for an immigration overhaul Tuesday and called on fellow Republicans to embrace the idea. Some Republicans and advocacy groups believe an endorsement from Paul, a tea party favorite, could be significant to winning GOP support.

Sen. Rand Paul’s support for comprehensive immigration changes and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants could go a long way toward helping get a bill into law, overhaul advocates and his fellow Republicans believe.

It’s “a signal to the tea party and libertarian right that immigration reform is OK,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of left-leaning immigration advocacy group America’s Voice.

The Kentucky tea party favorite announced his support in a speech Tuesday to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and he called on fellow Republicans to embrace immigration revisions. He also told reporters that he was receptive to allowing undocumented immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship, but he declined to use what has become a loaded phrase in conservative circles: a path to citizenship.

“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation,” Paul said.

He added: “Let’s start that conversation by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants. If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.”

After the speech, Paul said he would be open to supporting legislation that would give illegal immigrants probationary status and allow them to get in line behind those already seeking to become citizens. That position is substantially similar to that of the bipartisan “gang of eight,” which has been working to draft a comprehensive bill. Where Paul diverges most from the group is on border security. He said Tuesday that he wants Congress to vote yearly to certify that the borders are secure, and if they are not, immigration revisions would be halted.

Sen. Roger Wicker said he believes Paul’s endorsement could be significant to winning GOP support.

“What he says matters,” the Mississippi Republican said.

But Wicker also noted that a backlash from conservative media, which have significant sway over conservative and tea party voters, could hamper Paul’s influence.

“We’ll have to see what sort of reaction the cable shows give to that, and 24-hour radio,” Wicker said.

Sen. Mike Johanns said he also could see Paul’s support moving the needle on the issue with conservative lawmakers.

“It might provide some cover for some people,” the Nebraska Republican said of Paul’s move.

Johanns said it is tough to gauge where the caucus is on the issue and what Paul’s effect will be because there is no legislation to be for or against at the moment.

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