While a slew of Republican leaders, and now the Republican National Committee itself, have endorsed the idea of reforming U.S. immigration laws, only a handful—Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Arizona Senator John McCain, and now Rand Paul—have said explicitly that by reform, they mean the right eventually to get citizenship.
Conservatives have a tough time talking about citizenship because the party has effectively equated it with so-called amnesty, or a free pass for breaking the law. Amnesty wasn’t always a dirty word. Discussing immigration reform during the 1984 presidential debate, Ronald Reagan said “I believe in amnesty.” By the time the U.S. debated an immigration overhaul again, in 2006, the GOP had undergone a dramatic shift. The number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. had quadrupled, and any Republican who endorsed some version of a path to citizenship—no matter how onerous—could expect a barrage of attack ads and angry phone calls from members of highly organized anti-immigrant groups.