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Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who rose to power with support from the tea party movement, is urging conservatives to support efforts in Congress toward an immigration overhaul that would provide illegal immigrants a pathway to legality.
In a speech to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, Paul outlined his plan, which would allow illegal immigrants already in the country an opportunity to remain legally when defined border security goals are met. Once they secure work visas, according to Paul's proposal, they would be able to apply for legal residency, which would give them the option to seek citizenship, but only after a period of several years.
In his remarks, Paul urged Republicans to take leadership on the issue or risk losing future elections.
"Republicans need to become parents of a new future with Latino voters or we will need to resign ourselves to permanent minority status," Paul said.
He added, "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. It must modernize our immigration controls and databases. It must allow for as much legal immigration as our workforce requires. And it must treat those who are already here with understanding and compassion—without also unduly rewarding them for coming illegally."
Paul did not specifically embrace a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants in the speech. Instead, he said these immigrants should be granted a "probation" status where they are allowed to apply for work visas. And no work visas would be granted until Congress approved a report from an inspector general certifying that the border is "secure."
(Paul did not specify what measures Congress would use to decide whether the border is secure, but in an op-ed last month, he said more drones, satellite monitoring, fencing and deportations would be necessary.)
In February, Paul said he supported giving temporary visas while immigrants wait for permanent legal status. That plan is similar to what is being proposed by the Senate's gang of eight and is in line with President Barack Obama's reform plan.
Paul's announcement puts him in step with a growing list of Republicans who are working with Democrats on immigration reform.
A bipartisan group of eight senators working on the immigration issue is on track to unveil a comprehensive bill later this spring, with plans for a vote before Congress' August recess. In January, the group released an outline of its legislative goals, which include offering illegal immigrants a clear but slow pathway to legality and, eventually, citizenship if they choose. If passed, the new system would not trigger until certain goals are met on border security.
Unlike the bipartisan blueprint released in January, however, Paul would not mandate that business owners—in Paul's words—"become policeman" by expanding working verification system requirements.
On the day of his speech, Paul's office pushed back against an Associated Press article reporting that he supports "a pathway to citizenship," saying he never used those words. The definition of the phrase "pathway to citizenship" is widely debated. While some see it as offering a special path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, others say it means that eventually those who are in the country illegally can obtain citizenship without returning to their home country first. Whatever term you want to use, Paul's plan would effectively grant illegal immigrants a path to someday becoming U.S. citizens.
Paul said he is working on finding a "middle ground" between two extremes on the issue that can pass both chambers of Congress.
"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," he said. "My plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line."
In the 2012 presidential election, Hispanic voters supported Obama's re-election efforts by more than 70 percent, a number Republicans lawmakers have cited as a reason to support an overhaul. On Monday, the Republican National Committee released a detailed audit of its campaign efforts that recommended pursuing an immigration bill.
Paul's declaration of support will likely prove to be a helpful voice for supporters of an immigration overhaul who are trying to sway conservatives who for many years have resisted movement on the issue. Paul, who says he is "seriously" considering a run for president in 2016, is closely aligned with both the tea party and libertarian factions of the Republican Party, and could help provide cover for other conservative lawmakers to voice their support.
Elizabeth Goodwin contributed to this report.