Rand Paul's Massive Immigration Contradiction

The drug war dove becomes the GOP's leading immigration war hawk violating his own commitment to civil liberties


There is no functional difference between the war on drugs and the war on immigration.

Both use the power of the state to go after the supposed perpetrators of victimless "crimes" (actually, in the case of

Ran Paul Caricature
DonkeyHotey / Foter / CC BY

immigration, the "crimes" are not only victimless, but have only beneficiaries) while running roughshod over civil liberties and decimating minority communities.

This is why it's so baffling that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—who is trying to position himself in the GOP presidential field as a new kind of Republican who cares about civil liberties and minorities—wants to wind down the drug war while ramping up the immigration war.

Soon after Mitt Romney endured a historic shellacking in Latino-heavy states in the 2012 presidential election (and even committed amnesty foes like Sean Hannity admitted that the GOP had a minority problem), Paul delivered a speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce so sympatico to the plight of immigrants that the Statute of Liberty would have wept. He chastised Republicans for treating immigrants as "liabilities rather than assets," supported a pathway to legalization for undocumented workers ("If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you"), and defended bilingualism ("Republicans who criticize the use of two languages make a great mistake"). It was all very admirable.

Unfortunately, these fine sentiments were a brief interlude in an otherwise virtually unbroken record of anti-immigration grandstanding from Paul.

Paul rode to the Senate in 2010 by vigorously pushing English as the official language for all government documents and vehemently opposing President Obama's DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship to kids brought to America illegally by their parents. He also supported Arizona's notorious SB1070 law that authorizes local authorities to demand proof of legal residency of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, an open invitation to racial profiling (earning him the endorsement of arch-restrictionist Tom Tancredo).

After getting elected, one of Paul's first acts was to co-sponsor a bill to end birthright citizenship to deal with the putative scourge of "anchor babies." He opposed the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill because it refused to attach his draconian Trust and Verify amendment.

This amendment demanded "100 percent incarceration for all visa overstays or illegal entrants until trial"—even if that meant effectively orphaning the American kids of undocumented parents. What's more, it required Congress to authorize that the border was satisfactorily secured every year for five years before key immigration reforms could go forward. This was an impossible requirement that allowed Paul to be for immigration reform while sabotaging it. It was tantamount to conditioning the end of the drug war on congressional authorization that drug use in America had been eliminated.

And somehow, in recent months, Paul has managed to become an even more hardened anti-immigration warrior. He is not just not opposing his party's harshness, he is positioning himself as its chief peddler in a sad attempt to reassure the base and boost his flagging polls, presumably to get a spot on this week's first GOP presidential debate.

In the wake of the Chattanooga shooting by a Muslim immigrant, the presidential candidate dusted off a plan he had floated after the Boston bombing to cut back student visas to Muslim countries. (Never mind that, barring one 9/11 hijacker, none of the Muslim terrorists in any attack actually came on such a visa.) Worse, he recommended heightened "scrutiny" for Muslim immigrants by reviving some particularly noxious aspects of the post-9/11 program called the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) that Congress killed a few years ago. It required the implementation of a biometric exit and entry system to track the cross-border movements of every man, woman, and child in America—citizen and non-citizen alike—something that's just a little shy of a National ID card that Paul opposes. Even more chillingly, it mandated Muslim boys and men to personally appear before Uncle Sam's immigration functionaries and get fingerprinted and IDed. Such surveillance on steroids—which ruined the lives of many innocent Muslims through false detentions while leading to not a single terrorism-related arrest—is a slap in the face of Paul's own crusade against government surveillance.

Following the tragic shooting death of a California woman by a disturbed undocumented immigrant, Paul introduced the Protecting American Citizens Together Act (PACT), whose smarmy name belies its draconian content. The law threatens so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to keep in custody undocumented immigrants until Uncle Sam gives a green light for their release or whisks them away. Courts have already ruled that such detentions are unconstitutional, but that hasn't stopped Paul, the constitutionalist.

The sad irony is that everything that Paul is pushing for on the immigration front, he has pushed against on the drug war front. He has never been for totally ending the drug war. But he has at least pushed policy proposals that are generally in the direction of less—not more—draconian federal involvement, especially when it clashes with basic civil liberties. Not so on immigration.

He has sponsored legislation ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession convictions that are responsible for putting unconscionable numbers of black men behind bars and ruining black families. "Our prisons are bursting with young men of color and our communities are full of broken families," he has lamented. "I won't sit idly by and watch our criminal justice system continue to consume, confine, and define our young men." His Trust and Verify bill on immigration, by contrast, wants "100 percent" incarceration for visa overstayers and border jumpers.

He was the lead sponsor of the CARERS Act, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) so that the federal ban on marijuana does not apply to people in states where growing, distributing, or using the drug for medical purposes is legal. Yet his PACT Act would prod unwilling local authorities to partake in more draconian federal immigration enforcement, even if that means diverting precious law enforcement dollars away from pursuing genuine criminal threats.

He has also recommended diverting the funds America is spending to keep drugs out of the country and drug users in jail to shore up Social Security. But as Niskanen Center's David Bier notes, what Uncle Sam spends on immigration-related arrests and enforcement dwarfs spending on the drug war. Half of all federal arrests in the United States are for immigration offenses—with drugs as a distant second, at 15 percent. And the $18 billion that the country spends on immigration and custom enforcement is equal to all other federal criminal enforcement combined. Yet Paul, the fiscal conservative, wants to hike this spending even more.

So how can Paul be for the immigration war and against the drug war? After all, they both involve criminalization of minor offenses, militarization of the border, violation of elementary civil liberties, hyper-intrusive surveillance, and over-zealous local enforcement. The simplest answer is that the first will generate negative headlines in the conservative press and the second won't. In other words, the "new" kind of Republican is really not that different from the "old" kind. Maybe if he had gone for consistency over calculation, his campaign would be in less of a downward spiral right now because he'd be a more interesting candidate.