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Paul warms to path to citizenship

| Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 6:45 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Rand Paul said on Tuesday that illegal immigrants should be allowed to become 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 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 because of 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.

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 happen first, and Congress must agree that border security has improved. The path to citizenship he envisions would carry 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 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 when in 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, 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.

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