WASHINGTON -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave a full-throated endorsement on Tuesday for comprehensive immigration reform that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens but not expand the employment verification system, putting him at odds with members of his party.
"Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution," Paul said in a speech at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Legislative Summit. "That's why I am here today to begin that conversation and be part of the solution. I think the conversation needs to start 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."
Paul has previously voiced support for immigration reform, but not in a speech so public as this one. He penned an op-ed in the Washington Times on Feb. 8 that laid out broad strokes of his preferred plan for immigration reform, which would "ensure border security" and then allow 2 million undocumented immigrants per year to "normalize" their status, work legally and pay taxes. Undocumented young people who entered the United States as children -- often called "Dreamers" -- should be legalized first, he wrote.
It's a fairly standard view for immigration reform supporters: more border security is needed, legalization can happen but undocumented people must get to the "back of the line" behind those currently wanting to enter the country legally. But Paul differs from many Republicans, and some Democrats, on employment verification. Paul singled out E-Verify, an already-existing federal effort to check employment status. It's considered necessary by many to ensure businesses aren't hiring workers they shouldn't, but it's also criticized as cumbersome for employers and too likely to give false positives that would keep citizens and legal immigrant workers from being hired.
"My plan will not, though -- and this is where I disagree with some in the bipartisan group -- impose a national ID card," he said. "It will also not have mandatory E-Verify. I don't mind if there's E-Verify, maybe related to the tax code somehow, but I don't like the idea of making every business owner a policeman."
The Senate "gang of eight" working on comprehensive immigration reform will likely seek to expand E-Verify, which currently is not mandatory, the Associated Press reported last week.
Paul did not specifically endorse the plan being crafted by the "gang of eight" -- which includes fellow potential 2016 contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- but he told the Associated Press that he could lend his support in the future, and would introduce his own amendments if it went to the floor.
He wrote in his Washington Times op-ed that he differs from the "gang of eight" on whether there should be heavy fines and back taxes, since many undocumented immigrants may not have the money to pay them. "I would be willing to forego the fines and back taxes in exchange for a longer and significant time period before these folks are eligible to enter into the green card line," he wrote.
He sketched out a similar plan on Tuesday, saying the inspector general should first verify the border is secure after one year, then after approval by Congress probationary work visas could be given to undocumented immigrants. Then Congress would review the security of the border each year for five years, he said. Paul did not specifically use the word "citizenship," but voiced support for the concept of a pathway to it.
"Conservatives, myself included, are wary of amnesty. In fact, if you read the news already I think I'm already being accused of it and I hadn't given my speech yet," he said. "Amnesty is kind of -- who wants to make the definition? But I say what we have now is de facto amnesty. The solution doesn't have to be amnesty or deportation."
Although his libertarian leanings make his support for immigration reform somewhat less surprising than many Republicans, he has also pushed for hardline policies. In June 2010, Paul said there should be an underground electric border fence to keep out illegal entrants. He also introduced a resolution in January 2011 with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) -- who opposes immigration reform plans -- that would end the right to citizenship for children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. Paul did not mention either of those issues in his Tuesday speech.
Now, though, it's more politically tenable to tout support for reform, and it could be a good move for a potential 2016 presidential bid. The Republican National Committee endorsed comprehensive immigration reform on Monday, saying it would be good for the party moving forward, and more GOP members have voiced support.
Paul said supporting immigration reform was necessary to help the party.
"My hope is that today we begin a dialogue between the GOP and Latinos," he said. "A dialogue that shows that the GOP sees all immigrants as assets and that Latinos can come to see the GOP as the party of opportunity, the party of the American Dream -- El partido del sueño Americano."
UPDATE: 12:25 p.m. -- Paul's office disputed the interpretation of his remarks, saying in a statement to The Washington Post that the Associated Press, which reported that he supported a pathway to citizenship, was inaccurate.
The Post reports further complaints from the Paul team about that analysis:
One Paul adviser told Post Politics that the path to citizenship Paul is pushing doesn’t make it any easier to attain citizenship than current law allows.
"They would get into the back of the line and get no special privileges to do so," said the adviser, who wasn't authorized to comment publicly. "What his plan is extending to them is a quicker path to normalization, not citizenship, and being able to stay, work and pay taxes legally."
Paul's office did not respond to requests for clarification.