SAN DIEGO – Now that he is running for president, Rand Paul will be traveling all over the country. And when talking about “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, he’s already all over the map.
For one thing, it seems that Paul – who has repeatedly declared his support for immigration reform and allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States – has overcome his dislike for the A-word. In fact, he has become the kind of fear-mongering conservative he used to criticize.
In March 2013, during an interview on Fox News, the senator from Kentucky pushed back against right-wing critics such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. “I’ve got a news flash for those who want to call people names on amnesty: What we have now is de facto amnesty,” Paul said. “We have 11 million people here. They’ve been here, some of them, for a decade or more. No one is telling them to go home, no one’s sending them home.”
And in June 2014, on a conference call organized by a pair of prominent immigration-reform supporters – anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – Paul declared his support for reform but also asserted that conservatives have boxed themselves in. “We’ve been somewhat trapped by rhetoric and words, and amnesty’s a word that has kind of trapped us,” he said. “We’re trapped in a word that means different things to different people.”
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Paul is correct. What “amnesty” means is in the eye of the beholder. Some people think it means letting illegal immigrants stay without being deported. Others think it means giving them legal status, even if we withhold a path to citizenship. Others think it means giving people citizenship and all the rights that come with it, including the right to vote.
Well, Paul must have figured out what “amnesty” means to him because, on the very day he declared his candidacy, he put out a YouTube video in which he said – in language that also appears on his campaign website: “I do not support amnesty.”
Guess who is no longer trapped by the word.
At the same time, Paul has shown great flexibility and, when convenient, he has no problem running back to his original position – which, last I checked, was in favor of letting illegal immigrants remain in the United States. He has gone so far as to suggest – as he did in June 2013 at an immigration forum organized by the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles – that the message to the undocumented should be: “If you wish to live and work in the United States, we will find a place for you.”
You can bet that line won’t be in the 2016 Republican Party platform.
Paul has noted that we’re not going to deport millions of people, so we must “treat those who are here already with understanding and compassion without also unduly rewarding them for coming illegally.”
But many conservatives would argue that promising to “find a place” for millions of illegal immigrants is a reward and that any plan that allows them to stay in this country amounts to amnesty.
During a recent interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” host Bob Schieffer asked Paul if he supports legal status for the undocumented. The senator said: “What I want to do first is secure the border. If we secure the border, and we can say who is coming, who is going, and 1 / 8the 3 / 8 only people 1 / 8who 3 / 8 come, come legally, the 11 million that are here, I think there could be a work status for them.”
Once I stopped my head from spinning, I took a crack at decoding this cipher. It’s all a word game, and it revolves around when Paul uses the word “amnesty.” When he talks about how he wants to help the undocumented by letting them work and finding a place for them, he won’t use the word. But when he is talking about how we should enforce the statutes and not reward lawbreakers, then he will.
It appears that Paul will say whatever pops into his head, even if it contradicts something he said a few days earlier. Then he’ll circle back around, and start all over again. Just when you think he’s front and center, he’ll pop up behind you. It’s masterful – but also maddening.
In 2000, John McCain built a presidential campaign on the promise of straight talk. Now, when it comes to immigration reform, Paul prefers double talk.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com.