Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky on Tuesday waded deeper into an issue fraught with political opportunity and risks: further clarifying his ideas on immigration reform by laying out steps to eventually provide permanent legal status for the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S.
"I think the conversation needs to start by acknowledging that we aren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants," Paul said.
The senator has previously made clear his position. Yet a widely-watched announcement will surely put him at odds with many of his own tea party supporters -- and stoke louder claims that Paul is courting Hispanics ahead of a potential 2016 presidential run.
Paul's proposal stands firm on an oft-stated Republican stance: any immigration solution must first involve securing the nation's borders. But it is his insistence on allowing millions of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally to remain that could hurt his standing with conservatives who criticize such a move as amnesty.
Paul delivered the Tuesday speech to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gathered for sessions in Washington. While policy watchers will study the substance of Paul's proposals, political observers are sure to seize on the audience: a consortium of business leaders and entrepreneurs which bills itself as the nation's largest Hispanic business organization.
Aware of the growing influence of Hispanics in national elections -- they overwhelmingly backed President Barack Obama's re-election -- Paul began his speech with personal anecdotes of his understanding of their culture and frequent plight.
"I lived, worked, played and grew up alongside Latinos," the Kentucky senator said, recalling his Texas upbringing. "As a teenager I worked alongside immigrants mowing lawns and putting in landscaping around businesses."
"At a young age, I came to understand that it makes a difference whether you are a documented immigrant or an undocumented immigrant, that the existence was not easy for the undocumented but that opportunity in America somehow trumped even the poor living conditions and low pay."
Paul criticized his own party for what he called "harsh rhetoric over immigration" that has "obscured our respect and admiration for immigrants and their contribution to America."
"Republicans have been losing both the respect and votes of a group of people who already identify with many of our beliefs in family and faith, and conservative values," Paul said.
From there, he laid out what he likened to a common-sense immigration plan. A first and critical step: securing the nation's borders.
"It's absolutely vital for both the success of our immigration policy and for the purposes of national security that we do secure our borders," Paul said. "Not to stop most immigrants from coming - we welcome them and in fact should seek to increase legal immigration."
Paul's proposal would mandate that border and other officials certify border security steps and that Congress would vote on the veracity of those steps for several years.
With that, Paul stated, conservatives would be ready to swallow the notion of millions of illegal immigrants staying in the country.
"If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you," Paul said.
His plan would provide work visas for the undocumented, with a Congressional panel determining how many visas would be given each year.
The plan would bring "these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society," Paul said in his speech.
In a recent column for the Washington Times, Paul suggested normalizing about 2 million undocumented citizens per year.
"I would start with Dream Act kids, children brought here illegally as minors. Normalization would get them a temporary Visa but would not put them ahead of anyone already waiting to enter the country. These undocumented persons would now be documented but they would still have to wait in line like everyone else. But their path to permanent legal status would be no faster than those currently waiting in line," Paul wrote.
Many conservatives -- especially tea partiers who support Paul -- call such measures amnesty. In recent elections, some activists have defeated Republicans who have supported plans that would provide an eventual path to citizenship.
Should Paul decide to run for president, his stance could prove problematic. Apparently sensing backlash, Paul addressed the criticism, head on during the speech.
"Conservatives, myself included, are wary of amnesty. In fact, if you read the news already, I'm already being accused of it -- and I haven't even given my speech yet," the senator said. "Amnesty is kind of who wants to make up the definition. But I'd say, what we have now is de facto amnesty."
Paul continued: "The solution doesn't have to be amnesty or deportation. Maybe there's a middle ground that we call probation where those who came illegally - who did break the law, have a period that they have to go through called a probationary period. My plan will not, though -- this is where I disagree with some in the bipartisan plan -- will not impose a national ID card. It will also not have mandatory e-Verify. I don't mind if there's e-Verify that's maybe related to the tax code somehow. But I don't like the idea of making every business owner a policeman."
The Kentucky Republican's remarks come as Congress and the Obama administration ready to tackle the issue of immigration reform. Shortly after his inauguration, the president made clear it is a high priority for his second term. Additionally, a bipartisan group of senators have been working on a framework for immigration reform that would include an eventual pathway to citizenship.