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From 'amnesty!' to assimilation: Two Pauls' immigration stances

Sen. Rand Paul explains portions of his immigration reform plan on Tuesday while speaking at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Legislative Summit.

With a growing social media fan club and a CPAC straw poll win under his belt, Sen. Rand Paul is sounding a lot like his famous father -- the former presidential candidate and Texas congressman, Ron Paul, whose limited-government philosophy made him a libertarian icon.

But on immigration, it’s a more complicated story.

The younger Paul made headlines Tuesday for embracing an immigration strategy that would eventually offer legalization and a possible path to citizenship to undocumented workers currently residing in the United States.

“I think the conversation needs to start by acknowledging we aren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants,” he said during remarks at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."

Paul said that he supports a legalization process that would not force illegal immigrants to return to their country of origin before obtaining a visa, adding that he’s not “a fan” of some proposed steep fines that such immigrants would have to pay.

“I think a lot of these immigrants are workers who don’t have a lot of money,” Paul told reporters Tuesday.  “I’m more [about] wanting it to be at least enough time that people are becoming part of America, assimilating, knowing about America before they become citizens.”

In his remarks, Paul used the word “compassion” three times in the span of just a few minutes to describe his stance towards those in the country illegally.

Cut to 2007, when the older Paul, during his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, launched a foreboding campaign ad featuring visuals of undershirt-clad young Hispanic men swimming across the border, sprinting through the desert and being roughly searched by white police officers.

“Today, illegal immigrants violate our borders and overwhelm our hospitals, schools and social services,” a narrator boomed in the ad, contrasting current lawbreakers with early immigrants who “led productive lives.”

“No amnesty,” the ad warns. “No welfare to illegal aliens. End birthright citizenship. No more student visas from terrorist nations.”

In the 2008 GOP debates – which featured immigration hardliners Reps. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter along with Paul – the Texas congressman underscored his opposition to “amnesty.”

“We subsidize illegal immigration,” he said at a New Hampshire primary debate in 2007.  “We reward it by easy citizenship, either birthright or amnesty.”

The elder Paul softened that stance in the 2012 election, writing in his 2011 book Liberty Defined that most illegal immigrants come to the U.S. “for survival reasons” and have “a work ethic superior to many of our own citizens who have grown dependent on welfare and unemployment benefits.”

(His book, in fact, earned him the ire of  immigration-reduction advocacy group NumbersUSA, which gave him an “F” grade for his new positions.)

But while the differences between the two men may not be as stark now, that booming “no amnesty” warning makes for a jarring comparison to Paul’s senator son, who on Tuesday waxed eloquent about the love poetry of Pablo Neruda in describing his embrace of immigrants.

“How can we not embrace such passion?” he asked. “How can we not want that culture to merge with and infuse the American spirit?


NBC’s Mike O’Brien contributed to this report.

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