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Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky doubled down Tuesday on a previous call for a path to citizenship, telling a major Hispanic business group that his message to the nation's illegal immigrants is: "If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."
Conservatives, he told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, must "become part of the solution" to immigration, including dealing with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S. In his Washington speech, Paul said:
"Let's start that conversation by acknowledging we aren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants.
"If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.
"In order to bring conservatives to this cause, however, those who work for reform must understand that a real solution must ensure that our borders are secure.
"But we also must treat those who are already here with understanding and compassion."
In a speech that the Texas native sprinkled with Spanish, Paul, considered a potential 2016 presidential candidate, predicted that his party would find itself permanently marginalized if it fails to lead on immigration.
"Republicans need to become parents of a new future with Latino voters, or we will need to resign ourselves to permanent minority status.
"The Republican Party has insisted for years that we stand for freedom and family values. I am most proud of my party when it stands for both.
"The vast majority of Latino voters agree with us on these issues, but Republicans have pushed them away with harsh rhetoric over immigration.
"Immigration is a contentious issue in American politics. In our zeal for border control, we have sometimes 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 our belief in family, faith and conservative values. Hispanics should be a natural and sizable part of the Republican base.
"That they have steadily drifted away from the GOP in each election says more about Republicans than it does about Hispanics."
Paul joins Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, also frequently mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, in calling for a path to citizenship — an anathema for many conservatives.
Rubio is part of a bipartisan group of eight senators writing an immigration overhaul proposal that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that would impose a decadelong waiting period for a green card, and citizenship opportunity three years after that.
Paul is not part of the Senate group, but his comments Tuesday did not come as a surprise. Here's what he wrote on Feb. 8 in his weekly column in The Washington Times:
"To those who complain that if anyone is allowed to stay without returning to Mexico that it amounts to amnesty, I say: What we have now is de facto amnesty. No undocumented immigrants are being sent home, and no one is seriously advocating rounding up and sending home 11 million people. Immigration reform begins the process of bringing these folks out of the shadows and making American taxpayers out of them."
Paul, a Tea Party favorite, recently grabbed the political spotlight with a nearly 13-hour, old-fashioned filibuster of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director. And he shows no sign of relinquishing center stage while his party attempts to recover and reshape itself after a disastrous general election cycle.
Shortly after Paul's speech, the Iowa GOP chairman, citing the filibuster, announced that the Kentucky senator would be the featured speaker at the state Republican Party's annual "Lincoln Dinner" in May.
Iowa traditionally kicks off the presidential contest season with the first-in-the nation caucuses.