TIME 2016 Election

Rand Paul Plays Both Sides of Immigration Debate

A tightrope for the 2016 presidential hopeful

This post has been updated.

Sen. Rand Paul has walked a fine line on comprehensive immigration reform for months. The Kentucky Republican has courted advocates of an overhaul by embracing the need to do something, while carefully avoiding specifics that could run afoul of the GOP grassroots.

Paul’s support of reform is part of a pattern for the 2016 presidential hopeful, who is trying to have it both ways on a variety of policy issues. In one sense, Paul is caught between a rock and a hard place—a grassroots that is opposed to reform, and a party establishment that believes the legislation is vital to its demographic survival. But Paul has managed to use that situation to his advantage, telling both sides exactly what they want to hear. On foreign policy, he’s told Republican donors wary of his isolationist tendencies that he is “evolving” on the subject.

On a Wednesday call with reporters organized by the Michael Bloomberg-backed immigration reform group Partnership for a New American Economy, Paul said “I still am for it, I say everywhere I go that I am for immigration reform.”

“If we do nothing, the status quo continues,” Paul said.

But Paul opposed the Senate bill that passed last year, a vote he explained Wednesday was because the bill didn’t go far enough in expanding legal immigration or tightening the borders.

“I don’t feel like anybody really wanted by vote because they never really considered any of my suggestions,” he said. Paul offered an amendment to the Senate immigration bill to tie reforming immigration laws to an annual certification by Congress that the border is secure, but it was rejected by the Senate.

“Amnesty’s a word that’s kind of trapped us,” Paul said. “I like no deportation in the sense that I think mass deportation is a real problem for us, that it needs to be done in a process, a legal process figuring out who would be safe to be here and who would want to work here,” Paul said. “But at the same time, if you take that literally if you’re not deporting people, does that mean you’re normalizing them. Is that amnesty? And some people define amnesty as only giving the right to vote, and other people say amnesty is only if you have no penalty and there’s not process for trying to become legalized. So we’re trapped in a word that means different things to different people.”

He continued to highlight the emerging issues of unaccompanied minors crossing the border and whether military veterans should be granted legal status or citizenship, but carefully avoided presenting his opinion

“Just the other day people who were for immigration reform were standing up and I was listening to them speak and they’re now horrified that the whole world thinks you can just come here if you’re a kid,” Paul said. “We’ve got 47,000 kids supposedly on the Texas border who are being shipped over to Arizona and so if the signal goes it. … And this is the complicated part of immigration reform. Do I have sympathy if you served in our military that we ought to find a place for you in our country? Absolutely. But do I want to send a signal to everyone in mexico that if you come and join our military you get to be a citizen, that’s a bad signal. But that’s sort of the signal that’s going out now across central America.”

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