WASHINGTON (AP) -- Tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul said Tuesday that the nation's illegal immigrants should be able to become citizens eventually, but amid a furor from conservative activists on the explosive issue he quickly sought to make clear that, while they would not be sent home, they couldn't get in line in front of anyone else.
What he doesn't support, the Kentucky Republican said, is amnesty or a new pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. He said he simply believes they should be able to stay in the country on what he called probationary status.
"You get in the normal line to citizenship that's already available, so it's not a new pathway, it's an existing pathway," Paul told reporters.
The dust-up underscored how semantics matter in the volatile debate over immigration, especially for a conservative who may seek the presidency in 2016. Twitter users were already dubbing Paul's stance "Randmesty," while an anti-immigration group, NumbersUSA, deemed his proposal "radical" and predicted that Kentucky residents would be "disappointed and maybe even shocked."
Paul himself ended up telling reporters on a conference call that both the terms "amnesty" and "path to citizenship" were better avoided because they just cloud the debate and prevent immigration reform from happening.
"We're trapped if we get lost in those terms," he said.
Earlier in the day, in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul issued an appeal to conservatives to get involved in the immigration debate and warned that the GOP risks "permanent minority status" if it doesn't win over more Hispanics.
"Let's start that conversation by acknowledging we aren't going to deport" the millions already in the country, Paul said. "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."
"Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation," he said.
Paul spoke a day after a Republican National Committee report called on the GOP to support comprehensive immigration reform, though without specifying whether it should include a pathway to citizenship. And like Paul's remarks, the RNC's new stance after significant election losses last fall also was questioned by conservative activists.
A bipartisan group of eight senators struggling with the same issues has made it clear its legislative package will include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Their effort could get a boost from Paul's stance.
The brouhaha surrounding Paul's remarks started Monday night when The Associated Press and others posted excerpts from his prepared speech to the Hispanic business group. In that version provided to the AP by Paul's office, Paul said illegal immigrants should be able to get work visas, enjoy a probationary status "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.
The AP and others reported that Paul had embraced a pathway to 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 the reference was removed in late edits but offered no further explanation.
In his speech, Paul never said the word "citizenship," and his aides aggressively contested reports from the AP and others that what he supported was, in fact, a path to citizenship. Conservative bloggers joined in, with the Red State blog declaring: "Feel free to disagree with Sen. Paul if you must. Just don't claim he's pursuing a path to citizenship he never even mentioned."
It was left to Paul himself, questioned by reporters after his speech and again on a conference call later in the day, to confirm that, yes, he foresaw allowing illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship, although it would be after waiting an unspecified length of time in a probationary status, and would happen only after Congress certified that the border was being secured. But immigrants would not have to return to their home countries first, as they do under current law, Paul said.
"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 after his speech. "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."