Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul told members of Lexington's Hispanic community Friday that he favors comprehensive immigration reform but will offer at least one amendment to a bill being pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
Paul, a Republican from Bowling Green and a potential presidential candidate in 2016, said he is "in the middle" and wants to improve the bill touted by the so-called "Gang of Eight." In particular, he wants a tougher standard for measuring border security and has not committed to the bill's proposed path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.
"I am conceptually for immigration reform but I am going to try to make the bill more to my liking before making my decision," Paul said during a panel discussion at the Lexington Public Library downtown.
Paul said he plans to introduce an amendment that would require Congress to vote each year for five years on "whether or not we are doing a good enough job of securing the border."
Instead of requiring a plan to build a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico, Paul told reporters later Friday that his proposal "would actually say how many miles of fence you would have to build."
"It's more specific," Paul said. "Theirs is more, 'You have to have a plan to do X.' Ours is more, 'You have to do X.' And then you would have to vote that you have done X."
If the border is secure, Paul said, "we continue documenting the undocumented workers." If it's not secure, "the process stops."
Speaking about how long a path to citizenship should take, Paul said "it shouldn't be too easy, and it shouldn't be too hard.
"I don't think there is an absolute right or wrong."
He also expressed concern about a provision in the proposed bill that would cap the number of agricultural work visas.
"I'm afraid that if you cap work visas you still may have the same problem," Paul said. "If the marketplace wants 300,000 people to work in the fields and we cap it at 110,000, maybe you still get illegal immigration."
Paul said a great number of people who are undocumented have tried to obey immigration rules, "but the rules are difficult to obey."
"Some conservatives I think frankly have been overly harsh in describing this as 'You're a lawbreaker, you're a bad person,'" Paul said. "And I think really to imply that someone who wanted to work for a better wage and took a job is the same as a thief or a murderer or a rapist is wrong, and I think we have to figure out how to make the system better so we aren't calling people lawbreakers who simply want to get a job."
Paul's rhetoric on immigration issues has evolved quickly in recent months. In 2011, Paul sponsored a resolution to amend the U.S. Constitution so that children of undocumented immigrants would not gain automatic citizenship.
He stopped short of acknowledging that his position on birthright citizenship has changed. "I say it's that I believe if the border can be more secure, it won't be necessary," he said.
Members of the panel who spoke alongside Paul included a member of the ACLU's Louisville office, a U.S. veteran, an assistant superintendent of Catholic schools, a local Latino religious leader, and a Latino university professor.
Friday's forum was sponsored by the Office of the Immigrant, Solidarity and Information in Lexington. The group initially invited media to attend the forum, but later tried to ban them from the gathering.
A reporter for the Herald-Leader attended the meeting. A photographer for the newspaper was prevented from entering the library's Farish Theater.
Seth Norat, a spokesman for the group, said Paul's staff asked that the forum be closed to media.
"A preference to keep the event closed to the media was communicated to us by his staff," Norat said in an email Friday morning. "Upon learning about this preference, a joint decision was made by OISI and Sen. Paul's office to not allow press access to the panel discussion."
One member of the panel, Marco Saavedra, told Paul he had applied for deferred action, a program which temporarily protects some young people from deportation. Saavedra asked Paul to inquire with immigration officials about two Elizabethtown mothers with children under seven who face deportation because they were caught driving without a license. Paul told him he would review the cases.
After the meeting, Saavedra said he was simply asking Paul to confirm that the mothers should not be a high priority for deportation.
Audience member Ximena McCollum said she brought her 13-year-old son Mason to see Paul at the forum.
"He has a way of talking that he doesn't necessarily answer the question," McCollum said after Paul spoke "... I wanted to get a better answer from him on what specifically he can personally do to influence the other Republicans on voting."
Josh Santana, an advocate for Lexington's Hispanic community, said he thought Paul demonstrated that he was open to listening to the concerns of the Hispanic community.
Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears