Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is telling a Hispanic business group that illegal immigrants should be allowed to become U.S. taxpayers and ultimately get a shot at citizenship.
It's significant development coming from the Tea Party favorite amid growing Republican acceptance of the idea -- but also continued resistance from some conservatives who view citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants as amnesty.
Speaking to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul says, "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."
Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, emphasizes, though, that for him to support such an approach, border security must come first.
Paul's path to citizenship would come with conditions that could make it long and difficult for illegal immigrants. Chief among these, Congress would have to agree first that progress was being made on border security.
Nonetheless, Paul's endorsement of allowing illegal immigrants an eventual way to become citizens puts him in line with a growing number of Republicans who are embracing action on immigration as a way to broaden the GOP's appeal to Latinos.
On Monday, 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.
Paul's move also comes as a bipartisan group of senators is nearing agreement on sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, an effort that could get a boost from Paul's stance. 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.
Paul's prepared speech is peppered with Spanish phrases from his youth in Texas, references to his immigrant grandparents and praise for Latino culture. He says his party must adopt a new face toward Hispanics and says conservatives must be part of it.
"Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation," Paul says.
"Let's start that conversation by acknowledging we aren't going to deport" the millions already here, he says.
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."
In his speech, Paul lays 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.
Like the Senate group, Paul would aim to secure the border before illegal immigrants could begin taking steps toward citizenship, and he emphasizes this as a necessary first step to get support from conservatives.
He doesn't specify how the border would be made more secure but says 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 in line behind those already in the system before moving forward toward citizenship. 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.
Different from other approaches, Paul would not attempt to crack down on employers by expanding working verification systems, something he says is tantamount to "forcing businesses to become policemen."
"My plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line," Paul says. "But what we have now is de facto amnesty."