Washington — Tea party hero Sen. Rand Paul on Tuesday backed a dramatic overhaul of the nation's immigration system, a fresh, strong signal that Republicans are coming to accept broad changes — and that Paul wants to widen his appeal.
"Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation," the Kentucky senator told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"Let's start that conversation by acknowledging we aren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants," Paul said. "If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."
Paul's speech came a day after the Republican National Committee released a blistering state-of-the-party report that sharply criticized past efforts to attract minorities. To help woo Hispanics, it said, "we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform."
Paul, who has an eye on the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, will speak at the Iowa Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner on May 10. He said the purpose of his trip would be to reiterate Tuesday's message and emphasize that Republicans needed to be "a more inclusive party."
Paul would start a White House race with considerable strength. His father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, ran for the party's nomination in 2008 and 2012 and retains a loyal following. When seeking his Senate seat in 2010, Rand Paul beat the Kentucky Republican establishment candidate for the nomination, making him an instant hero for grass-roots conservatives.
Paul's chief rival at the moment appears to be Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key congressional player in the immigration effort.
Rubio also has demonstrated considerable appeal to the very hard-core conservatives and libertarians Paul considers his base. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Paul won a straw poll but he beat Rubio by only 2 percentage points.
Paul's immigration proposal "will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line," he said. "But what we have now is de facto amnesty."
He said the borders must be secure before any plan for illegal immigrants to stay in the country was adopted.
While he didn't mention specifics as to how border security would improve, he wants Congress to agree each year that the borders are secure. Once it does, by the second year undocumented immigrants could be issued probationary work visas. They wouldn't be able to get on a citizenship path before anyone who's going through the process legally.