Rand Paul Can Run, But He Can’t Hide From Latino Voters in 2016


vargas_randpaul_4Last Sunday in Iowa, the two of us had the opportunity to meet Rep. Steve King of Iowa and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. After we identified ourselves as “DREAMers”— undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — what we intended to be a civil, serious discussion turned into a tense confrontation with King.

That tense confrontation became a viral Internet sensation when Paul fled the scene in the middle of eating a hamburger. Here’s the whole story.

Originally, we had travelled to Iowa to meet other DREAMers and Iowans from King’s district. King is one of the House of Representatives’ most vocal opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, and he is known for his wild statements equating Hispanic immigrants to “drug mules.” Despite his cold reception, Iowans were very welcoming: We met a gentle-spoken Christian Republican who told us that King did not represent his views, or his neighbors’, when it comes to immigration, explaining why the issue drove down King’s winning margin from 30 percentage points in 2010 to just 8 points in 2012.

After speaking with undocumented young people like us, we were invited by King’s constituents to attend his fundraiser. It was telling that his constituents lamented how King rarely speaks directly to the people he represents.

At the event, we listened to King’s speech. He wasted no time bragging about his recent legislative success to kill DACA – the federal program to halt the deportation of young immigrants raised in the United States The speech made us angry; it was then that one of us decided to hand him our DACA card, challenging him to rip it up if he truly opposes the program.

Contrary to what King said later, we did not create an elaborate, 007-like plan to catch him on camera saying something outrageous. Nor had we planned to ask King to rip up our DACA cards, the tangible identification that protects us from deportation. Most importantly, we don’t have a “left wing” partisan agenda; this is personal for us because this is about our families, not politics.

King was condescending and insulting: Though we were raised in the United States, he asked if we understood the English language, interrogated us about whether we were drug smugglers and dismissed the sacrifice of an undocumented soldier killed in action by repeatedly calling him a liar. Needless to say, King’s rough manners—he even grabbed Erika’s hand—crossed the line.

Paul, who was there to raise money for King, avoided the topic of immigration in front of the elderly, predominantly white crowd, but he did urge Republicans to be more inclusive by giving those caught up in the prison system for drug offenses a “second chance” because “we all deserve one.”

Paul’s rhetoric made sense to us, which is why it was surprising to see him avoid not only a question on immigration policy, but also the people asking it. No reporters were hovering over Paul after his speech, which we thought might make him more willing to engage as he sat eating lunch alongside King. Instead, his aide kept a wary eye on us as we approached the table.

What happened next is what went viral: Paul leaned down to take a hungry bite of his burger, and, upon hearing Erika say she was a DREAMer, either choked or froze for a moment as the reality of what was unfolding struck him.

“Time to go,” Paul’s aide seemed to signal, and the senator was off. He grabbed his beer, got up quickly and did not even say goodbye to King. The burger? Abandoned, half-eaten. I guess Paul was worried about being seen with two undocumented immigrants—afraid to be seen acknowledging our humanity, perhaps.

Though it was easy for Paul to flee, it won’t be as easy to avoid Latino voters in 2016, assuming he wants to be president. Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate in 2012, and we are growing. Fixing America’s broken immigration policy matters to us because it’s personal: Most Hispanic-Americans have family members or friends who have run afoul of the system. Earlier this year, 85 percent of Latinos said the issue was “important” in determining which candidate they would choose.

Paul understands this. He knows the GOP is in a hole with Latino voters, but his attempts to build bridges have been inconsistent. Just a few days ago, he defended his actions, saying, “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” Then, almost in the same breath, “But I’ll tell you I have sympathy for [DREAMers].”

Which is it? He has “sympathy” for us, yet refused to discuss immigration with us because, according to him, we are here “illegally.” But we now have legal presence thanks to DACA, and would have been offered the opportunity to formally become Americans if Congress had gotten its act together.

Unfortunately, Paul is part of the problem. He voted against the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration bill last year because, he explained in an op-ed, “the legislation does not secure the border first.” Never mind that the legislation contained a $40 billion militaristic “border surge” that doubled the number of border agents and called for expensive equipment like Black Hawk helicopters and Predator drones.

“Of paramount concern,” Paul added, “is what to do with the 12 million people residing in the U.S who are in legal limbo.”

Here’s what we would have told him, had he chosen to hear our message: We are two of those 12 million. We were brought to the United States as children, call this country our home and aspire to serve this country. We are both college graduates — one of us a law school graduate awaiting a court’s decision on whether or not undocumented lawyers can practice law.

Many have wondered what was going through Paul’s mind as he dropped his burger. The more relevant question, however, is why is he raising money for King, the most rapid opponent of sensible reform? And would a President Paul rescind Obama’s executive order on immigration?

Being a senator is one thing; running for the White House is quite another. As Mitt Romney learned, presidential hopefuls should know better than to stand against DREAMers, especially given that 88 percent of voters support an earned path to citizenship for us.

That includes Hillary Clinton, by the way. Latino voters were tremendously enthusiastic about DACA, enthusiasm that helped lead to Obama winning 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012. Recent polling shows Latino voters support further executive action on immigration to keep families together. Will Clinton be with us?

As for Rand Paul, he will have plenty of opportunities to discuss immigration, but next time we hope he can speak with us. We’ll even pay for the burger.

Cesar Vargas and Erika Andiola are co-directors of the Dream Action Coalition and national advocates for immigration reform.

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