Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks in Washington on Wednesday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Sen. Rand Paul opened his remarks to a group of conservative Latinos on Wednesday by joking about his stilted “Spanglish.” So he switched from Spanish to English to be clear that he had empathy for the plight of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

“I’ve been told you’re not supposed to call them illegal immigrants, but undocumented,” the Kentucky Republican said. “That’s an important distinction. People come wanting regular visas; they come wanting a better job. Words are important.”

For an emerging generation of Republican leaders, words have rarely been as important as they are in the current debate over immigration reform. After GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s disastrous showing among Latino voters last fall — winning less than 30 percent against President Obama — Paul and other would-be candidates for the party’s 2016 nomination are staking out positions that would be considered moderate, or even liberal, compared with Romney’s endorsement of self-deportation for people in the country illegally.

The public support from leading Republicans has helped create a political climate that propelled the bipartisan legislation to the Senate floor this week, and some conservatives believe it has begun to lay the groundwork for a 2016 campaign in which immigration could effectively be neutralized as a political hot button.

“Everyone has to acknowledge we aren’t going to deport 12 million people who are here undocumented,” Paul told his audience Wednesday. “It’s not going to happen; it hasn’t happened. Let’s get rid of this whole talk of amnesty. What we have now is de facto amnesty. If you wish to live and work in America, we’ll find a place for you.”

Hours after Paul spoke, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made an economic case for immigration in a separate forum at the Ronald Reagan Building, arguing that immigrants enter the workforce and grow the economy. Ryan, who was Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, also predicted that the GOP-controlled House will ultimately will support a deal that gives people in the country illegallya chance at citizenship.

“Even if the government wanted to find everyone and send them home, they couldn’t. What is the smart way to deal with this?” Ryan said. “Earned legalization is not amnesty.”

The remarks came a day after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — another potential 2016 presidential candidate — delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in support of the sweeping immigration reform bill that he helped negotiate. And on Thursday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) will discuss his endorsement of a legal path for undocumented immigrants at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“It’s incredible, because you have all the potential presidential candidates, even [Republican Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker, who said he’s for a path to citizenship,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which sponsored Paul’s speech.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative economist who supports immigration reform, said that “the realization has dawned that only conservatives can get immigration reform right” because Democrats do not prioritize border security.

“Given that it’s become a conservative issue, major young conservatives have to say what they think about it,” he said, “and there’s an opening for pro-growth conservatives to make a case about the power of open markets as Paul Ryan has done.”

Yet despite the optimism of immigration advocates, significant political risks remain for the legislation. With much of the conservative base still opposed to legal status for people in the country illegally, the up-and-coming GOP standard-bearers are seeking to bridge the divide with verbal contortions over just how far they are willing to go in support of a reform bill.

Bush, who has long favored a path to citizenship, published a book on immigration policy in March that recommended requiring people in the country illegallyto return to their home countries before pursuing citizenship — a position that stunned allies and foes alike, many of whom thought he was pandering to the party’s base.

Rubio is also championing amendments to the bill that he helped develop, including forcing immigrants to learn English before earning green cards granting them permanent residency, and denying them public benefits such as health-care subsidies and tax credits.

Paul said he will not support the bill unless senators adopt his amendment to increase Congress’s power to block legal status for immigrants if it determines that sufficient progress has not been made on border security each year.

“This issue needs to be solved in order for many of the Republican candidates to have a good shot in 2016,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which supports the Senate bill. “That’s why all of them are trying to find some way to support some version of this so that when they run, they’ll be able to say that. But the key is trying to stay as [politically to the] right as possible to survive a primary.”

The machinations have alarmed immigration advocates, who say they fear the proposed changes are aimed at making the Senate legislation’s path to citizenship more difficult.

Paul said Wednesday that he is making a good-faith effort to find a compromise with the sponsors of the Senate bill, including talking to Rubio about potential amendments. A Rubio aide confirmed the talks but declined to discuss specifics.

“I think they need to understand you’re not going to lose your base over immigration,” Aguilar said. “You have to make inroads with Latinos. What does it matter if you have a tougher primary if you cannot get elected in the end?”