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GOP's Image Remake

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Sen. Rand Paul's embrace of immigration reform this week shows just how far the GOP has come on this contentious issue since the election. Two years ago, the tea party's favorite senator was one of those Republicans wanting to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. Now, he's considering whether even their parents (and other illegal immigrants "who want to work and stay out of trouble") should become eligible for citizenship at some point. "If they want to become citizens, I'm open to debate as to what we do to move forward," he told reporters after his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

One thing Paul really gets right and almost everyone else gets wrong is what role employers should play in enforcing immigration laws. He has consistently opposed "a national ID card or mandatory E-Verify, forcing businesses to become policemen." It's hard to imagine, however, that he'll get far with his Republican colleagues on that issue. Nor are Democrats likely to go along, because demonizing "greedy" employers as the drivers of illegal immigration is their way of mollifying anti-immigrant factions within their own party.

But even with Paul's support, comprehensive immigration reform faces tough days ahead. Well-financed immigration opponents are gearing up for a big fight, trying to intimidate Republican supporters like Sen. Lindsey Graham by threatening to run primary challenges. And many Republicans still won't acknowledge the reality that the border is as secure as it has been at any point in recent history, insisting instead that we have to pour more money and manpower into sealing an un-sealable border before we can increase legal immigration levels.

And not all supporters of reform agree on how best to manage legal immigration. Most Republicans favor bringing in high-skilled workers over lower-skilled labor. But we need both. And we need larger numbers of legal immigrants than either Republicans or Democrats are proposing. The best way to stop illegal immigration isn't to build higher fences but to let in the number -- and type -- of workers the economy needs. Few politicians of any political stripe are brave enough to say so, however.

Perhaps the most promising development on the immigration reform front hasn't been Paul's embrace, but that of thousands of evangelical church leaders. The Catholic Church has been part of the immigration reform coalition for years, but evangelicals, as a group, are relative newcomers. A new group, the Evangelical Immigration Table, which represents pastors of more than 100,000 churches nationwide, is launching a grassroots effort to make immigration reform a moral crusade.

Beginning with a verse in the Gospel According to Matthew -- "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me" -- the group is trying to get church members to read 40 Bible verses that describe the duty to treat strangers as neighbors. If they succeed, the conservative base in the faith community may begin to view immigrants, including illegal immigrants, differently.

The Republican Party knows it has a problem. The recently released report on the state of the party commissioned by RNC Chair Reince Priebus noted, "In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our party's position on immigration has become a litmus test measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door." Whether the party can do more than try to change its rhetoric is still an open question. But Paul might help lead the way.

"Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution," he told the Hispanic Chamber. "I am here today to begin that conversation."

Paul's conversion, like that of his namesake on the road to Damascus, could prove the miracle needed to bring new members to the flock. Solving the GOP's Hispanic problem is the easiest step in helping rebuild the party's dwindling numbers. Next, Republicans have to figure out a way to attract more women and young people, and unfortunately, no single position shift or piece of legislation can do that.

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