If you were to ask me for Rand Paul’s position on immigration reform, my honest answer would be that I don’t know. The Kentucky Republican and libertarian-ish senator is among the people considered most likely to seek the GOP nomination for the presidency in 2016, and during his brief time in office he’s held a variety of positions related to immigration, lurching from extreme nativism to measured support for moderate reforms. Last week, while on a trip to Guatemala to perform pro-bono cataract surgery, Paul tossed another policy position onto the pile: support for a bill passed by House Republicans to end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields certain young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
So, in the spirit of trying to figure out just what the hell is going on here, let’s track the evolution of and changes to Sen. Rand Paul’s stance on immigration.
One of the very first things Rand Paul did upon his entry into the U.S. Senate was to join Sen. David Vitter in proposing a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship – one of the foundations of U.S. citizenship law that has been in place since Reconstruction. His impetus for doing so was the threat posed by so-called “anchor babies.” According to conservative mythology, pregnant immigrant women would cross the border into the U.S. immediately prior to giving birth so that their child would have U.S. citizenship. Then the immigrant parents would wait 21 years until their citizen child could sponsor them for residency.
As you’ve probably surmised, it’s not the most effective plan for circumventing immigration laws, which is probably why – all the nativist hype notwithstanding – it wasn’t actually happening to any large degree. But newly ensconced Sen. Paul wanted to change the Constitution to end the “anchor baby” threat. “Citizenship is a privilege, and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits,” Paul said at the time.
That was a hardline position for Paul to take, but not entirely unexpected. During his 2010 campaign, Paul was an outspoken opponent of immigration reform bills being put forward by President Obama and the Democratic Congress. The DREAM Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children, was killed by Republican filibusters in 2010. On the campaign trail, Paul lashed out at the legislation. “Washington liberals are trying to push through the so-called DREAM Act, which creates an official path to Democrat voter registration for 2 million college-age illegal immigrants,” Paul said at the time, calling it a “roundabout way of giving amnesty to illegal immigrant students and undermining the rule of law.”
In 2012, Paul came around to a more measured, less antagonistic attitude on immigration. Shortly after President Obama crushed Mitt Romney among Latino voters, Paul began talking about the need for Republicans to deal with undocumented immigration. In an interview with Politico, Paul laid out a plan for “an eventual path” to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants currently in the country, paired with a plan to bar “any new legal immigrants while we’re assimilating the ones who are here.”
In a February 2013 Washington Times op-ed, he staked out yet another position. The man who once called the DREAM Act a politicized form of lawless amnesty wrote: “After ensuring border security, then I would normalize the status of the 11 million undocumented citizens so they can join the workforce and pay taxes. I would normalize them at a rate of about 2 million per year. I would start with DREAM Act kids, children brought here illegally as minors.”
The next month, he proposed a plan to grant undocumented immigrants visas and even the chance to become citizens, but vigorously denied that he was proposing a “path to citizenship” (even though just a few months earlier he’d endorsed “an eventual path” to citizenship). In May 2013, he said he would support the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill (which provided a pathway to citizenship) if it were amended to strengthen border security. Amendments were made to strengthen the bill’s security provisions, but Paul voted against it, saying the amendments were too weak.
Since then, Paul’s been making the argument that he’s open to discussing reform of some kind, but the border has to be secured first. That is, of course, until last week, when he threw his support behind the House bill to end DACA and its protections for DREAMers – the same people Rand Paul wanted to “normalize” in 2013, and also the same people Rand Paul thought were lawless Democrats-in-waiting in 2010.
If you managed to follow all that, then you’re probably wondering what could possibly explain all these policy gyrations. Well, put simply, Rand Paul is an exceptionally sensitive political weathervane. Whatever the dominant Republican position is on immigration at any given time, you’ll find Rand Paul pushing for it.
In 2010, as the Tea Party wave was cresting, nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment were all the rage in Republican politics. And so Rand Paul was pushing for citizenship amendments and lashing out at the DREAMers. After Obama’s reelection, Republicans from Sean Hannity to John Boehner realized they had a terrible demographic problem on their hands and very suddenly came around on immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. Rand Paul picked up that ball and ran with it. As the shock of their electoral drubbing wore off, though, Republicans began slowly regressing to their long-held antagonism toward “amnesty,” and so did Paul as he shifted from proposing a path to citizenship to refusing to say the words “path to citizenship” to voting against it when given the chance.
The Republican regression culminated with the House’s final rejection of the Senate bill and the vote to kill DACA, a ridiculous sop to the nativists by Boehner and the rest of the leadership. The House GOP had set the agenda on immigration, and thus it became Rand Paul’s agenda.
That’s it. There’s no great mystery to it. Rand Paul’s position on immigration is that he has no position. He’ll just go with whatever the Republican consensus is at any given moment and try to make it his own.