WASHINGTON -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) supports allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States, receive legal status and eventually apply to become citizens. But he would rather not use the term "pathway to citizenship," he said Tuesday.
"I think we're trapped. The immigration debate has been trapped and it's been polarized by two terms: path to citizenship and amnesty," Rand told reporters on a conference call. "Everybody who doesn't want anything to move forward calls every proposal that somebody else wants 'pathway to citizenship' or 'you're granting amnesty.' Can't we have reform and just not call it by some names that discourage the progress from going forward?"
Paul gave an address earlier Tuesday to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce where he laid out his desired plan for immigration reform. A number of news outlets, including this one, reported that Paul had endorsed the idea of a pathway to citizenship, although not using the term specifically. His office insisted later that he had been misinterpreted: he did not want any special avenue for people to become citizens, although his plan would allow them to do so.
But within several hours, Paul had summed up one of the major struggles in talking about immigration reform. Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, including fellow Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), said they were pleased with his announcement. But opponents of reform efforts, such as anti-immigration expansion group NumbersUSA, lept at the chance to try to take Paul down.
"Pathway to citizenship" means different things to different groups, and Paul seemed displeased with being pigeonholed. Sounding frustrated, he told a few reporters after a Republican Caucus lunch Tuesday that they weren't being helpful by always asking about a "pathway to citizenship" or "amnesty."
"I know it's your job to ask questions, but if you make everything about -- sort of the confusion this morning, the reporter put out a big blast saying I'm for a pathway to citizenship," he said, specifically referencing the Associated Press, which stood by its analysis. "By doing that, they may think they're advancing the debate but they're actually pushing the debate backwards."
Discussing immigration reform as defined by those two terms won't be helpful, he said.
"I think there's a way to get through this, but it's like everything else: terminology sometimes is an impediment," he said.
At the same time, Paul said he's "not for any type of law that says you can never be a citizen" or requiring undocumented immigrants to return to their native country before applying to return. He said they should not be naturalized ahead of anyone who has already applied to immigrate legally, but that's a relatively common line among pathway-to-citizenship supporters as well.
Those working on a Senate immigration bill certainly seemed to think Paul had indicated support for such a pathway. Graham, a member of the so-called "gang of eight" working on a bill, said he and Paul had spoken "briefly" about a pathway to citizenship, but not extensively. The South Carolina senator is a strong supporter of a path to citizenship and argues no immigration bill will go into law without one. He said he was glad to see Paul seemingly agree.
"The fact that he embraces it as a logical solution to a tough problem is very positive for the party, very positive, I think, for solving the problem overall," Graham told reporters. "It was welcome news."
It wasn't taken that way by NumbersUSA, which quickly sent a message to its 13,000 Kentucky members asking them to call Paul's office to ask him to stop supporting "amnesty." Roy Beck, the group's president, called Paul's position "far more radical and pro-illegal-immigration than anything proposed by Pres. Obama or the Gang of Eight."
"Rand Paul outlined his amnesty with enough ambiguity to give some hope that Kentuckians can rescue him -- and the country -- from disastrous leadership on this issue," the group wrote. "Help Sen. Paul know what his own constituents think of his plan."
Paul himself seemed to see the controversy coming. He even predicted it in an ad-libbed line of his speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"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."