The Republican Party has reached a tipping point and appears to have started tepidly embracing immigration reform. The man who has played a big role in tipping the scale is Senator Rand Paul—the first-term libertarian Senator from Kentucky and son of the most prominent face of the libertarian movement, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
This has been brewing for some time. The GOP seems to have accepted that the party’s loss in the November elections was due to their lack of support among every demographic other than old white dudes. They also seem to be having the realization that they need to attract Hispanic voters or face becoming a permanent minority party due to the changing demographics of the US. Senator Paul is not the first to weigh in on the issue; in recent days Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have both made calls for some kind of reform. But the difficulty the Republicans have is that reform smacks of amnesty to many conservatives, which is a big no-no. Amnesty is especially hated by the nativist, if not xenophobic and racist, members of the GOP—including those who support extreme measures such as Arizona’s show-me-your-papers law.
But on Tuesday, the first-term Senator waded into the issue. He gave a speech, beginning in Spanish with an anecdote about what a bad student he was in Spanish class. He then made a somewhat vague proposal that he gave the Reagan-echoing name Trust But Verify.” The proposal, which seems to be amnesty without the amnesty, is a way to allow undocumented aliens to obtain green cards without going back home first. Rand has become a phenomenon among young conservatives who tend to describe themselves as “social libertarians, fiscal conservatives,” and he just won the straw poll as the favored presidential candidate of the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) convention last weekend. However, he is decidedly not liked by the more traditional conservative elements, who are horrified by aspects of Libertarian philosophy, particularly on issues of foreign policy and defense spending. Nevertheless, this speech appears to have been targeted to his general conservatives, building on issues raised at the CPAC convention and on the recent GOP special report on the causes of their failure last November.
At first there was confusion about Paul’s proposal, whether it would allow undocumented aliens to become citizens, attain some new “guest-worker” status, or just allow them to obtain work visas, also known as green cards. A draft handed out to the press prior to the speech mentioned citizenship, but Paul never uttered the word when he spoke, and afterward urgently clarified that he was not talking about a path to citizenship. This was an indication of the care being taken to try to make reform acceptable to the most conservative elements of his party. It may be worth noting that citizens can vote (Democratic?), but legal aliens cannot.
Despite this confusion, somehow Paul’s carefully worded proposal may have created a breakthrough. By Wednesday afternoon, it was reported that Paul had attended a panel of conservative House members convened by the Heritage Foundation. This was not a room where any kind of “amnesty” program would typically receive a positive reception. In attendance were members of the Tea Party caucus, who had previously trended very anti-immigrant. Nevertheless, it was reported that there was unanimous assent among them that some reform to legalize the status of undocumented aliens was needed.
The swiftness of this about-face among conservatives is odd, and the fact that Rand Paul appears to be emerging as a leader on the issue is surprising. But don't think for a second that this new movement for reform is a perfect fit for the Republicans. As important as Rand's speech was on Tuesday, it was also awkward. Just take the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's quote he muddled. If the libertarian golden boy of the GOP is going to throw out some blatant pander to show he knows Latin American literature, you'd think at least he wouldn't choose a renowned Communist activist. The clumsiness of the whole thing reminds one of a high school boy trying to romance a girl by finding out who her favorite poet is and then heavy-handedly trying to force quotations into the conversation under any pretext.
However, there just may be a connection between Neruda and the GOP. On March 12, a Chilean court acting on a request by the Communist Party of Chile, issued an order for the exhumation of Neruda's body to investigate whether he was poisoned in connection with the coup then taking place by the Nixon-sponsored dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had just seized power days before Neruda's death in 1973.
But despite all this weirdness, somehow Paul’s speech seems to be making waves and may even lead to a big change in the GOP and serve as the beginning of a viable bid for the presidency in 2016.
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