Sen. Rand Paul, one of the most conservative members of his chamber and a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, on Tuesday endorsed a new path to legalization for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.

Nothing in his vision would preclude eventual citizenship for the immigrants, but Paul (Ky.) never mentioned that term outright — sparking a day of debate that highlighted continuing confusion among Republicans, who are anxious for an immigration position that might appeal to a growing bloc of Hispanic voters. In the search for that position, however, some in the GOP fear alienating their conservative base, many of whom think full citizenship would amount to an amnesty for lawbreakers that would encourage more illegal immigration.

The debate over whether Paul did or did not embrace a “path to citizenship” was reminiscent of a similar controversy this month when former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), who had previously favored a citizenship route, appeared to back off the position in an interview promoting his new book on the topic.

“I think there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally,” he said in an interview.

Later, though, Bush suggested he wasn’t foreclosing on the idea.

After Paul’s speech, he was mobbed by reporters on Capitol Hill demanding to know whether he had intended to back citizenship.

“I didn’t use the word ‘citizenship’ at all this morning,” he said in one conversation.

In another, however, he endorsed the key minimum features that most advocates agree constitute a path to citizenship.

He said there should be no prohibition on those now here illegally eventually becoming citizens. Nor, he said, does he think that the illegal immigrants should have to return to their home countries for any period before or after they seek temporary legalized status and eventually citizenship.

Still, he rejected the phrase as a symbol that could turn off conservative voters.

“Everybody's going crazy — is it a pathway or isn’t it a pathway?” he said. “If everything is dumbed down to ‘pathway to citizenship’ or ‘amnesty,’ we’re not going to be able to move forward, because we’ve polarized the country.”

For conservatives such as Paul, and to a lesser extent Bush, who is also widely viewed as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, it could be politically foolhardy to ignore the GOP’s new push for a more inclusive approach to immigration.

But at the same time, embracing the phrase “pathway to citizenship” could be a perilous move in a Republican presidential primary in which conservatives — many of whom strongly oppose immigration change — play an outsize role.

“I think there’s some voices in the GOP who are mistakenly trying to scare folks away from working toward an immigration solution by saying it will be political suicide to give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship” and an eventual right to vote, Republican strategist Ana Navarro said.

The irony for Paul was that scuffle threatened to overshadow a speech in which he intended to robustly plead with fellow Republicans to embrace an overhaul of the immigration system or risk permanent minority status for their party. It came a day after the Republican National Committee released a somber autopsy of the GOP’s November election losses that called for the party to embrace and champion the immigration system.

Accepting some kind of legal status for nearly all of those now in the country illegally represents a near-complete turnaround for a party whose presidential nominee just last year advocated policies that would make life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they would chose to “self-deport.”

“Republicans need to become parents of a new future with Latino voters, or we will need to resign ourselves to being in a permanent minority status,” Paul said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

In the speech, Paul recalled growing up with illegal immigrants in Texas and switched into Spanish repeatedly.

“Hispanics should be a natural and sizable part of the Republican base,” he said. “But they have steadily drifted away from the GOP in each election. I think this says more about Republicans than it does about Hispanics.”

Paul’s plan lays out a more arduous path than the principles advanced in January by a bipartisan group of senators who aim to introduce legislation in April. That group includes another likely 2016 contender, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Paul drew a distinction with the bipartisan group by proposing that Congress be involved in certifying that border security has improved sufficiently to open the legalization path, a requirement that many immigrant advocates would oppose as an unnecessary injection of politics into the process.

The Senate group has specifically endorsed a path to citizenship, although it has said immigrants would need to wait until those who applied legally have received green cards. They also would have to pay back taxes and a fine and would have to learn English.

“There will be no bill without a path to citizenship,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the group, noting President Obama’s support for the idea. Suggestions otherwise, he said, are “head-in-the-sand politics.”

But that position is opposed by a number of leading Republicans who have backed legalization but not citizenship.

“I don’t believe there’s any moral or legal responsibility to reward somebody who entered the country illegally with every benefit that you give to somebody who entered legally,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), who sent a letter Tuesday signed by five fellow Republicans calling on the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold more hearings on immigration before moving legislation next month.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which backs a citizenship path, said it’s a sign Republicans are “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“For one, they want to appeal to Latinos who overwhelming support a path to citizenship, yet they fear being attacked from the right for giving a path to citizenship to people who might end up voting mostly for Democrats,” he said.

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