Sen. Rand Paul endorses looser immigration rules, ‘path to citizenship’

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

Sen. Rand Paul used a high-profile speech to a group of Hispanic business leaders Tuesday to endorse a libertarian policy of work-permits for illegal immigrants, greater immigration of foreign laborers and professionals, plus wider use of Spanish.

The speech, which won him much favorable media coverage, included sections in Spanish, his recitation of a poem by Pablo Neruda, and an anecdote about his teenage work alongside Hispanic laborers in Texas.

However, the speech drew some criticism from conservative GOP activists, who said it was powered by a public relations strategy instead of a cold-eyed analysis of immigration’s impact on government growth, Americans’ wages and the GOP’s ballot-box results.

The speech will boost his media coverage from economically comfortable reporters who want the GOP to increase immigration of Democratic-leaning foreigners, said one conservative activist who opposes large-scale immigration. But the pandering will hurt him in the 2016 primaries if he runs against Sen Marco Rubio, another Tea Party-backed Republican who has endorsed a form of conditional amnesty for illegal immigrants, he said.

The speech was lauded by progressives and by advocates favoring large-scale immigration.

“Well done!” said a tweet from La Raza, the Hispanic ethnic lobby.

“I applaud and appreciate @SenRandPaul support for a path to citizenship,” said a tweet from Sen. Lindsey Graham, the leading GOP advocate for a conditional amnesty and greater immigration of foreign workers.

Throughout his speech, Paul identified himself with his audience of Hispanic business leaders.

“As a teenager [around 1980] I worked alongside immigrants mowing lawns and putting in landscaping around businesses … In school, everyone took Spanish. I sometimes wish I had paid more attention in class,” Paul said in his speech.

However, since the early 2000s, employment of teenagers has declined rapidly, and studies indicate this is partly because of competition from legal and illegal immigrants.

“The Republican Party has insisted for years that we stand for freedom and family values …The vast majority of Latino voters agree with us on these issues but Republicans have pushed them away with harsh rhetoric over immigration,” Paul insisted.

That’s a controversial claim. Extensive studies by Pew and other researchers show that three out of four Hispanics — aside from many Cuban-Americans and integrated Latino business owners — prefer a big government to a small, low-tax government.

In 2012, Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote. The GOP’s best performance came during an economic boom in 2004, when former Texas Gov. George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote.

Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican, was elected to his Senate seat in 2010 with support from Tea Party activists.

The GOP, he said, “should seek to increase legal immigration …. [and] must embrace more legal immigration … High tech visas would also be expanded and have a priority. Special entrepreneurial visas would also be issued.”

That welcome drew jeers from Mark Krikorian of Center for Immigration Studies, a low-immigration advocacy group, who cited an April 2012 Gallup poll reporting that 150 million foreigners would like to migrate into the United States.

Paul also promised work permits for most illegal immigrants, most of whom are low-skilled laborers. “Imagine 12 million people who are already here coming out of the shadows to become new taxpayers.12 million more people assimilating into society,” he said.

Many conservatives say the data shows that most Latinos pay far less in taxes than they receive from Democratic-backed welfare and aid programs. (RELATED: Expert says immigration bill will cost trillions)

However, Paul insisted his offer of work permits is not an amnesty. “My plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line,” he said.

He also promised to exempt business owners from having to check workers’ eligibility. “My plan will not impose a national ID card or mandatory E-Verify, forcing businesses to become policemen,” he said.

However, he did call for a five-year set of curbs on immigration. Each year, after the boarder is declared secure by administration officials and Congress, more work permits would be released, he said.

Paul did not say his plan would provide a quick award of citizenship to illegal immigrants. Instead, like other GOP politicians, he’s suggesting that illegals be offered work-permits and a long path to citizenship. However, conservative critics say the work-but-no-citizenship plan is flawed because it would create a two-tier legal system.

Paul did not propose funding for existing laws that require the government to develop a system for tracking tourists who overstay their visas to find work illegally. Roughly 40 percent of illegal immigrants came via aircraft, not the U.S.-Mexico border.

Paul ended his speech with a paean to Latino culture.

“I am a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez … [and] no one captures the romance of the Latin culture more than Pablo Neruda,” he said before quoting Neruda’s poem “If You Forget Me.”

Paul’s support for large-scale immigration mark a reversal of sorts from his policies in May 2009, when he was running for the Senate in Kentucky.

Back then, he urged pressure on Mexico to curb the flow of illegal immigrants.

“Trade treaties with Mexico should not be approved if they’re not going to take care of their border. If they’re just going to be sending people across the border illegally, we don’t approve any kind of trade favorability with Mexico,” said said, according to a report in the Huffington Post.

“Am I absolutely opposed to immigration? No, there’s probably a certain amount of immigrants that can come in and do work in our country,” he said.

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