For an expression so ubiquitous in today's immigration debate, no one seems to agree on what the term "pathway to citizenship" actually means.
That lack of clarity tripped up Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Tuesday. What was supposed to be a major speech on immigration reform for the likely 2016 Republican presidential hopeful was overshadowed by a messy debate about the "pathway" term.
To some of the most liberal proponents of immigration reform, a pathway to citizenship means putting illegal immigrants on their own fast-track to citizenship. On the other end of the spectrum, some conservatives see the pathway as telling illegal immigrants to return to their home country where they can apply for citizenship just like anyone else. In the center, where immigration reform legislation will most likely be crafted, a pathway to citizenship generally means that current illegal immigrants will have an opportunity to apply for permanent residency after living in the United States legally under a long-term visa for several years. Once they obtain permanent residency, they can apply for citizenship after five years.
On Tuesday, Paul delivered a speech to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where he outlined his vision for immigration reform that allows immigrants a chance to gain residency without returning to their home countries after a long waiting period. When The Associated Press previewed his remarks and said Paul would support a "pathway to citizenship," his office pushed back and said it was inaccurate.
But Paul's plan would in fact leave the door open for illegal immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship through the same channels as those waiting back home. "It's not a new pathway, it's an existing pathway," Paul said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon when asked to clarify his remarks.
Sound like "a path to citizenship" to you? Technically, it is.
Paul explained that he disliked the "pathway" term because he found that it polarized the debate.
"I think one of the reasons it's confusing is that I think the whole debate on immigration is trapped in a couple of words: 'Path to citizenship' and 'amnesty,'" Paul said. "If we get trapped too much in these descriptive terms and make it really simple that you're either for or against, I think what we do is we're going to polarize the debate on not allow us to move forward with it."
"Can't we have reform and not calling them names that discourage the progress going forward?" he went on to say.
It was the same expression that tripped up former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush a few weeks ago when he released his new book on immigration.
Consider these three headlines, all written within the same 24-hour period: "Jeb Bush: No Path to Citizenship in Immigration Reform" from ABC News, "Jeb Bush Unclear on Citizenship Path" from Politico and "Jeb Bush No Longer Supports Path to Citizenship" from the Washington Post. Say what?
As Bush experienced, taking a stab at the question without defining what the questioner means can have serious consequences. By avoiding the term altogether, Paul tried to avoid the same fate, but still found himself caught up in a whirlwind of confusing messaging.
Even Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a liberal working on the House version of an immigration bill who proudly says he "supports a pathway to citizenship," does not believe in creating a "new special path" either. He also concedes that under the best circumstances, it will probably take more than 15 years for a current illegal immigrant to be granted citizenship.
"If things run really, really well, I'm going to be like 75 years old before the first undocumented person gets to vote," Gutierrez, 59, told reporters Tuesday morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "This is not something that's going to happen tomorrow or the next day."
"I thought Rand Paul was absolutely clear this morning in his speech," he added. "I see a party that wants to see something done on immigration. It's almost as though in Washington, D.C., we have a hard time accepting yes."