Rand Paul, The GOP's Great Hope On Immigration

Rand Paul's endorsement of a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants is a huge turning point for the Tea Party.

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FILE - In this March 7, 2013 file photo, Sen. RandPaul, R-Ky. talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Tea Party favorite Paul releases a speech endorsing giving illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship, but then backtracks from the position and offers shifting explanations, illustrating the political explosiveness of the issue within a Republican party eager to reach out to Hispanic voters.

If there was an open question about Senator Rand Paul's, R-Ky., interest in the 2016 presidential campaign, it was resolved this week, when Paul—one of the deepest-steeped members of the Tea Party movement in Congress—endorsed the idea of a path to legal status for the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

Paul took pains to tell reporters he never used the word "citizenship," perhaps to keep his followers from suffering all-out heart attacks instead of mere indigestion. But notably, Paul said he didn't think it was necessary for those now here illegally to return to their home countries before applying for legal status.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

This is a huge turning point for the Tea Party as well as for the GOP, whose establishment veterans have figured out—far too late, for the last election cycle—that Hispanics have been trending Democratic, heavily, in recent elections, and that ignoring that fact means Republicans will have a very hard time winning another national election. But perhaps more notable and encouraging was the sheer common sense and realism in Paul's announcement and his rhetoric.

First is the recognition that it is impossible to deport the estimated 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants already here. It's unrealistic to believe they could even be tracked down, and it's even more unrealistic to believe that Congress, already fighting over budget cuts to popular domestic programs, would divert yet more money to such an effort.

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And Paul was refreshingly non-combative when he rejected the buzzwords that have reduced the complicated debate to a series of provocative bumper stickers. As the Washington Post quotes Paul:

Everybody's going crazy—is it a pathway or isn't it a pathway? If everything is dumbed down to 'pathway to citizenship' or 'amnesty,' we're not going to be able to move forward, because we've polarized the country.

That's true. It's also true that Paul, for his own political purposes, may be trying to avoid associating himself with phrases that will upset his Tea Party base. But for Congress to come to any kind of agreement on immigration reform, the rhetoric has to be tamped down. Paul's remarks are an important step in that direction.

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