Why Rand Paul could be key player on immigration

Sen. Rand Paul hopes to attract conservatives to immigration reform by requiring annual certification of border security for five years before any undocumented immigrants could be granted legal status.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Paul would tie immigration reform to annual reports documenting border security.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky hasn’t been a major part of the immigration reform debate to this point.

But as the Senate begins to put a bipartisan immigration reform bill through the legislative process, he may be the chairman of what could be called the Getting to Yes Caucus: deeply conservative lawmakers who want to tweak the bill in order to bring more conservative support, not battering the measure with poison pill amendments in an effort to kill it.

“I am for immigration reform, I am for finding a place for those who are in our country, whether documented or undocumented, finding a place for them if they want to work,” said Senator Paul at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday.

Paul acknowledged there are some in his party who simply won’t be won over. One of those deeply opposed to the current immigration reform effort made his stance clear just hours after Paul spoke.

“As we explore [the bill’s] many flaws and loopholes in the coming days, I am confident the American public will firmly reject it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama in a statement.

Despite intractable opposition from those like Senator Sessions, Paul believes a convincing package of border security proposals could bring a larger group of Republican lawmakers into voting for a comprehensive fix to the immigration system.

For his part, Paul said he would offer his “trust but verify” amendment to the current immigration bill. Under Paul’s vision, Congress would vote to certify that the border was secure every year for five years before any of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country received permanent legal status (also known as a green card).

The current immigration reform law, offered Wednesday by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” requires the Department of Homeland Security to achieve a 90 percent effectiveness rate at apprehending or deterring potential border crossers over the first five years after the bill is enacted. If that benchmark is not met, a slew of other requirements come into play over the next five years.

None of those currently in the country illegally are eligible for permanent residence until both the border security requirements are met and a decade has elapsed.

In addition, Paul noted that helping shape the Senate bill to be more palatable to the GOP-controlled House could help immigration reform’s prospects.

To that end, Paul said that breaking the comprehensive Senate bill introduced Wednesday into smaller pieces could help – a line of argument offered by key House Republicans, including Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee overseeing immigration reform legislation.

“We make it a lot harder to find a deal when it has a thousand moving parts,” Paul said. “It’s why the public is upset with us. They’re like ‘Why don’t we ever pass anything, why don’t we get along?’ It’s because all the stuff we agree on we won’t pass, because we say that’s going to be the sweetener for the particular deal that we’re never able to get.”

But both of those changes would put Paul at loggerheads with the bipartisan group of eight senators who crafted the more than 800-page immigration compromise in the first place.

In moving the bill rightward without dooming it, then, Paul faces careful tradeoffs on a host of issues like how much to trust the executive branch to carry out its immigration enforcement duties.

Paul cited his distaste for using reports from the executive branch as a condition for other activity, citing a report on Egyptian democracy that is both a prerequisite for US aid and that is summarily ignored upon publication.

“I don’t think there’s enough, really, seriousness of the administration on these reports,” Paul said.

Would the fact that the Senate’s immigration plan relies heavily on just such administrative reports to jump start its border security program be a problem, then?

“Maybe,” Paul said. “I’m not completely opposed to that.”

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