Notable, if only because Labrador claimed a few weeks ago that House Republicans would never vote for a path to citizenship. Has he changed his mind? Nope: If you read his earlier remarks closely, you know that he meant they’d never vote for a special path to citizenship, i.e. a new statutory mechanism created specifically for illegals. Granting them legal status and then letting them apply for a green card in the future through normal channels is very much on the table. Which, in fact, is what Rand Paul proposed yesterday.

Small favor: Given deep conservative anxieties that legalized illegals will vote overwhelmingly for Democrats once they’re granted citizenship, could we maybe not dismiss the issue as “minor”? Kind of important politically.

“You guys emphasize the ‘pathway to citizenship’ — we’re talking about a minor issue,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the leading Republican members of a House working group on immigration reform. “The real issue that we’re dealing with is immigration reform.”

“What I think should happen is, anybody who’s here illegally can come out of the shadows, become legalized in some way, have some sort of legal status, and the status could lead to legal permanent residency and citizenship eventually, but just the same as anybody else who falls into that category,” he added.

No, actually, the real issue we’re dealing with is border security. Even most stalwart opponents of the path to citizenship would, I think, relent if Congress could give them real comfort that we won’t be facing another amnesty 10-20 years from now. As it is, I’d bet 95 percent of the rhetoric in the big post-election immigration push has been devoted to the prospective nuances of the citizenship process, not to the border. That makes sense politically given that the whole point of this effort on the Republican side is to build goodwill with Latinos, but the message to border hawks is that their core concern is a pure afterthought. Only Paul’s plan has placed any emphasis on border improvements by demanding congressional ratification of them annually, and like I said yesterday, I doubt Republicans would be sticklers on that even if Paul’s plan did pass. The closer we get to 2016, the more eager they’ll be to ingratiate themselves with Latino voters. Blocking the path to citizenship on grounds that the border hasn’t been tightened enough yet is antithetical to that.

Don’t beat up on Labrador, though. He was one of nine Republican House members on the Heritage immigration panel today and they were all singing basically the same tune. A gleeful TPM reports:

“I thought [Rand Paul] did a very, very good job in talking about and embracing some ideals of dealing with illegal immigration and embracing some of the reform measures my friends are putting together,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) said. Duncan has an A+ career rating from anti-immigration group Numbers USA and once compared illegal immigrants to “vagrants” and “animals.”…

“We shouldn’t create a second class group that could never become citizens, but we should also not give them a special pathway that nobody can follow,” Labrador told the audience, adding that any bill also needed border enforcement triggers that would be met before reaching that point.

“I think many of us are willing to consider what Raul just descibed there,” Jordan, the former chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said…

Huelskamp told TPM he could find plenty to like in a comprehensive bill from a conservative perspective — it would boost to his state’s agricultural business, local Catholic leaders support it, and by granting legal status to undocumented immigrants it would be easier to track and prevent them from using welfare benefits.

When asked as a group whether any of them opposed Paul’s call to legalize the 11 million illegals who are here, no one said yes. No surprise there, either, as there’s plenty of momentum for immigration reform in the caucus: Boehner and company can’t stop chattering about their excitement over the bipartisan House plan (Labrador’s a member of the group that’s working on it), which is why the Times is now running pieces like this. I’m still skeptical that reform supporters will be able to ram the bill through Congress, but between reading TPM’s story and hearing that Harry Reid wants the Senate bill on the floor as soon as next month, it’s getting harder to maintain that skepticism. Exit question via Mickey Kaus: Is there really no tea-party champion in Congress who’ll seize the opportunity to impress the base by standing up as an outspoken opponent of this — at least until serious border security is proposed? Where are you when we need you, Ted Cruz?

Update: I’m now cautiously optimistic that Lindsey Graham’s best efforts to get Congress to rubber-stamp the Gang of Eight bill will be thwarted. Says Pat Leahy, chair of the Judiciary Committee:

Leahy made clear he is not happy that the Gang of 8 is doing its work in secret. “I have favored an open and transparent process during which all 18 Senators serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee will have the opportunity to participate and to propose or oppose ideas for reform,” he said. “The Majority Leader [Sen. Harry Reid] has agreed that we need regular order in the consideration of comprehensive immigration reform. This process will take time. It will not be easy. There will be strongly-held, differing points of view. Because we do not yet have legislative language to debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee will not be able to report a comprehensive immigration bill by the end of April, which was my goal.”

Leahy’s statement came one day after six of the eight Republicans on the Judiciary Committee wrote him a letter urging that consideration of any comprehensive immigration reform proposal be slowed down considerably. (The other two GOP committee members, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake, are working with the Gang of 8.) Now it appears the slowdown is happening, whether Leahy wanted it or not.