The viral video of an eight-minute confrontation between two undocumented immigrants and Rep. Steve King (R-IA) Monday was an uncomfortable reminder of how extreme elements within the Republican party are alienating minority voters. But the person who could see the most political fallout from the incident is a senator caught on film awkwardly excising himself early on from the table with his staff.
Potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has touted himself as an outspoken champion for GOP outreach, maintained to Fox News that he left because he had another interview, but many are accusing him of distancing himself from the immigration reform debate entirely.
Explaining his departure Wednesday during a radio interview in Iowa, Paul said, “I’ll be honest with you, I’m not interested in being filmed and berated by people who broke the law and are here illegally to try and convince me about policy. But I’ll tell you I have sympathy for the DREAM Act kids. I’m actually a moderate on immigration.”
Peculiarly, the two undocumented immigrants, Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas, are exactly the so-called “DREAM Act kids” for whom Paul should express sympathy, as they were illegally brought to the United States as minors. Paul previously said that legalization should “start with DREAM Act kids,” alluding to a federal immigration bill that would have granted an earned pathway to citizenship for some qualified undocumented immigrants. Andiola and Vargas are also among the more than 550,000 recipients of an executive order known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that grants work authorization and deportation relief for two years. But they were in Iowa to confront King who has continuously pushed for legislation that would gut the DACA program. Each time, the House has voted to kill the program.
The cognitive dissonance between the two statements said moments apart by Paul was not lost on the Democratic National Committee Director of Hispanic Media Pili Tobar who said, “Rand Paul attacks young people brought to America through no fault of their own and in the next sentence says he’s a new type of Republican and that he’s a moderate on immigration. Rand Paul is proving that he’s no better – and no different – than far-right Republicans like Steve King.”
Similarly, Andiola told MSNBC host Jose Diaz-Balart Wednesday morning, “the reality is that if you have someone who is actually affected by it try to talk to you, you don’t run away. You actually sit there and actually try to talk.” She added that Paul’s insincerity on the issue could hurt him in the 2016 presidential race, “I don’t know if Rand Paul actually learned a lesson from Mitt Romney, but Mitt Romney lost his election with the Latino vote because he didn’t support the DREAM Act and because he believed in self-deportation.”
Just 17 months ago, Paul said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that some of his values stemmed from his formative years getting to know undocumented immigrants. “At a young age, I came to understand that it makes a difference whether you are a documented immigrant or an undocumented immigrant,” Paul remarked in March 2013. “That the existence was not easy for the undocumented but that opportunity in America somehow trumped even the poor living conditions and low pay… Somewhere along the line Republicans have failed to understand and articulate that immigrants are an asset to America, not a liability.” But he has gradually moved faster and further away from that position, stating that he would not support the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill and accusing the President Obama of “poisoning the well” by using an executive order to create the DACA program. And as MSNBC pointed out, Paul endorsed legislation in 2011 to end the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship.