WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. Rand Paul said Tuesday that illegal immigrants should be allowed to become U.S. taxpayers and ultimately get a chance to become citizens, a significant step for the Tea Party favorite amid growing Republican acceptance of the idea.
"Let's start that conversation by acknowledging we aren't going to deport" the millions already here, the potential 2016 presidential candidate told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society."
It was the latest sign that the Republican Party is moving to broaden its appeal to politically influential Latinos and other ethnic minorities after significant election losses last fall. Paul spoke a day after a Republican National Committee report called on the GOP to support comprehensive reform, though without specifying whether it should include a pathway to citizenship, which is decried by some conservatives as amnesty.
In this file photo, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Tea Party favorite Paul releases a speech endorsing giving illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship, but then backtracks from the position and offers shifting explanations, illustrating the political explosiveness of the issue within a Republican party eager to reach out to Hispanic voters.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators is nearing agreement on sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration policy, an effort that could get a boost from Paul's stance.
"Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation and to be part of the solution," Paul said.
The Kentucky Republican said for him to support probationary status for illegal immigrants, a stronger border must come first, and Congress must agree that border security has improved. The path to citizenship he envisions would come with other conditions, too, that would make it long and difficult for illegal immigrants to travel.
Underscoring the political risks conservative Republicans face in embracing citizenship for illegal immigrants, Paul never used the word "citizenship" in his warmly received 17-minute speech, and aides sought to emphasize that his focus is on border security and on getting illegal immigrants into a probationary legal worker status.
Indeed, amid concern from GOP activists after early reports on the speech by The AP and other outlets, Paul offered different explanations of his proposal.
The clearest reference to citizenship came in a copy of the speech Paul's office provided to The AP on Monday night. In it, Paul says: "The solution doesn't have to be amnesty or deportation - a middle ground might be called probation where those who came illegally become legal through a probationary period, and then enter another five-year period of holding a full green card." Green cards are the permanent resident visas whose holders become eligible after five years to obtain citizenship.
But Paul omitted any reference to green cards when he spoke Tuesday morning, and the reference was not included in the text of the speech handed out at the Hispanic Chamber event. Paul's staff said it was removed in late edits but they didn't say why.
Questioned by reporters after his speech, Paul confirmed that illegal immigrants would ultimately be able to apply for citizenship under his plan. He said they would have probationary legal status and would have to get behind people already in line for citizenship. But they would not have to return to their home country, as required by current law.
"The biggest change really on immigration reform for getting to citizenship would be we're not going to make you go to Mexico," Paul told reporters. "You have an option to get in the line without going home and that's the main difference from what we have now, as well as you get a work visa if you want to work."
For Paul, there are political overtones to his newly articulated stance, since he's viewed as a potential presidential candidate and Hispanics are an increasingly important part of the electorate. Latino voters overwhelmingly backed President Barack Obama last year, helping seal his re-election, and Paul said the GOP needs to reverse that trend or risk "permanent minority status."
His speech was peppered with Spanish phrases from his youth in Texas, references to his immigrant great-grandparents and praise for Latino culture. He said his party must adopt a new face toward Hispanics and conservatives must be part of it.
Paul laid out broad elements of a comprehensive immigration overhaul that has some overlap with the approach contemplated by the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight, which hopes to release its legislation next month. The Senate group aims to secure the border, improve legal immigration and boost workplace enforcement, as well as create a pathway to citizenship. In an interview, Paul said he could foresee backing the Senate group's emerging bill, although he plans to try to amend it on the floor with some of his own ideas.
Like the Senate group, Paul would aim to secure the border before illegal immigrants could begin taking steps toward citizenship, and he emphasized this as a necessary first step to get support from conservatives.
"In order to bring conservatives to this cause, however, those who work for reform must understand that a real solution must ensure that our borders are secure," Paul said.
He didn't specify how the border would be made more secure but said the Border Patrol and an inspector general would have to sign off. Congress would also have to agree annually for five years that border security was progressing in order for the other reforms Paul envisions to keep moving forward.
In year two of his plan, illegal immigrants would begin to be issued temporary work visas, and would have to wait for an unspecified period of time in a probationary legal status before getting green cards. A bipartisan panel would determine the number of visas per year. High-tech visas would be expanded and a special visa for entrepreneurs would be issued. Illegal immigrants would not be able to get on a citizenship path ahead of anyone attempting the process legally.
Different from other approaches, Paul would not attempt to crack down on employers by expanding working verification systems, something he says is tantamount to "making every business owner a policeman"
"My plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line," Paul said. "But what we have now is de facto amnesty."