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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.

One critic, NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for a drastic reduction of immigration, sent out “an urgent action alert to over 13,000” of its members in Kentucky after Paul delivered his speech.

“Nowhere in his long speech did Sen. Paul indicate any concern for the 20 million Americans who can’t find a full-time job or for the taxpayers who have to support them in myriad ways while 26 million legal and illegal foreign-born workers hold U.S. jobs,” the alert said.

Paul’s stock has risen in recent weeks since he launched a talking filibuster against the confirmation of CIA Director John O. Brennan over the White House’s policy on using drones. Paul also won last weekend’s presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He narrowly edged out another tea-party-backed senator, Florida’s Marco Rubio.

Immigration overhaul advocates, including the gang of eight, hope Paul’s boosted status and conservative bona fides can translate into more GOP support for their emerging bill.

“I think it’s a very positive development for him to embrace a pathway to citizenship,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is one of the eight. “I think it will be good for the overall cause of immigration reform and good for the Republican Party.” Graham has criticized Paul on other occasions for his stances on drones and U.S. foreign aid.

Paul’s speech came the day after the Republican National Committee endorsed comprehensive immigration revisions, arguing it would help the party remain competitive in future elections. Latinos played a significant role in helping President Barack Obama win, and the RNC report was intended to help party faithful be more inclusive.

Graham agreed that the 2012 elections are a significant factor in why the GOP is beginning to open up to immigration changes.

“I think the 2012 election was a bit of a wake-up call,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another immigration group member, called it “great news.”

Asked whether it may help the bill win support among House Republican members, Flake said, “It will make a difference, a big difference.”

The fourth Republican member of the group, Rubio, who also may run for president in 2016, said he wanted to read Paul’s speech before commenting.

Having both Paul and Rubio in favor of an overhaul has energized immigration advocates who believe the senators’ stature within the GOP will do a lot to help pass the measure.

“Having Rubio on board is huge,” Sharry said. “Having Rubio and Rand Paul on board: game, set, match.”

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