Rand Paul makes immigration move

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is roiling the Senate immigration debate by offering several amendments that could give him an edge in a future Republican presidential primary.

Paul, who could square off against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the bill’s primary authors, in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, is taking aim at three of the most controversial areas of the bill, according to Senate aides familiar with the measures.

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His action also puts pressure on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who says he wants to pass immigration reform but has not yet committed to voting for the 1,075-page Senate bill. 

McConnell faces reelection in 2014; while he does not yet have a credible primary challenger, he has sought to shore up his right flank by maintaining close ties to Paul.

Paul’s most ambitious proposal would eliminate the pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants and lift the caps on guest workers. 

It would provide immigrant workers to employers who can demonstrate need, but immigrants would have to apply for legal permanent residency and citizenship through the existing lines of their native countries. 

Paul is expected to file that amendment this week.

Another measure, Paul’s “Trust but Verify” amendment, would give Congress — and not Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — ultimate authority on deciding when the southern border is secure. 

Under this plan, immigration reform would not proceed until Congress votes on whether several criteria have been met.

These objectives would include the completion of a comprehensive system to track visa entries and exits at all points of entry — not just air and sea ports as mandated by the broader bill — and law enforcement achieving a 95 percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants. 

The Census Bureau would have to show an insignificant flow of new immigrants entering the country illegally. 

Paul has already filed this amendment.

GOP strategists say these amendments could help Paul strike a contrast with Rubio in Iowa and South Carolina, conservative states that have traditionally played important roles in determining the Republican presidential nominee.

“Rand Paul can turn around and say in 2016, ‘Hey guys, I tried to fix it,’ ” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who handled rural outreach for the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008. 

“I think that amendment, as I understand [it], is geared more toward giving him an out if this goes south.”

Paul says he will not make a decision on running for the White House before 2014.

Other Republican members of the Gang of Eight have opposed giving Congress authority to vote on whether border security metrics have been met because they fear it would politicize the process. 

Democrats warn that opponents of the path to citizenship would use it to delay permanent legal residency for millions of immigrants.

Rubio is uncommitted on the issue. He said he was not firmly for, or against, giving Congress future authority on assessing border security. 

His focus, however, is putting a specific border security plan in the Senate bill so that colleagues have a sense of firm metrics being put in place and Napolitano has less discretion.

Robert Haus, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) 2012 presidential campaign, said Paul’s amendment would give him a political edge.

“Yes, I think it probably does. Whether or not that early advantage holds sway remains to be seen,” Haus said. 

“It at least gives him a calling card and talking point to start some of that early work. I don’t know how it functionally works to have Congress certify. Congress can barely tie its own shoelaces.”

A spokesman for Rubio declined to comment on Paul’s amendments.

Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio host based in Iowa, said Rubio’s role in the Gang of Eight has significantly hurt his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses in 2016.

“I don’t think he has any chance to be the conservative candidate. I think conservatives feel more betrayed by Marco Rubio than they feel betrayed by any Republican politician in my lifetime,” he said.

“There’s a palpable sense that not only [is the immigration reform bill] bad policy, as the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, but that it’s also terrible politically for the Republican Party.”

Conservatives say the immigration reform debate will reverberate in South Carolina’s next presidential primary.

“Conservatives are against the Senate bill and believe even before we have a conversation about the path to citizenship, we should secure the border and make sure people are not overstaying their visas,” said John Steinberger, a member of the 9/12 Project chapter in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

Rubio could be helped, however, by Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) strong support for the bill.

“With Sen. Graham’s leadership, it’s kind of gotten a spotlight down here in South Carolina,” said Luke Byars, a GOP strategist based in Columbia, S.C. “I think it’s playing out favorably.”

“There are conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and independents who just want to get this past us, find a solution and move on to some of the other issues Republicans really care about,” said Byars, who has helped raised money for Rubio.   

But Deace said many conservatives fear GOP leaders are alienating their party’s base to ingratiate themselves with Hispanics, who make up a small percentage of the electorate and tend to vote for Democrats.

Paul is working on another amendment designed to ensure that immigrants with provisional legal status do not vote. It will likely have resonance in the wake of Monday’s Supreme Court decision striking down an Arizona law requiring people to prove their citizenship when registering to vote.

Paul’s proposal would make federal election funding contingent on states checking voter rolls against visa databases to ensure people with provisional legal status are not voting along with citizens. Immigrants would be barred from receiving permanent legal status if they were to vote as registered provisional immigrants.