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Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took another step toward a 2016 presidential bid Tuesday, by offering his qualified support for immigration reform during a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Paul — who has refused to deny his interest in the presidency, is reportedly already laying the groundwork for a 2016 campaign — attempted to offer the type of “inclusive and welcoming” olive branch to Latinos that the RNC’s 2012 “autopsy” suggested the day before. Stressing that “immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution,” Paul declared, “I am here today to begin that conversation and to be part of the solution.”

“Let’s start that conversation by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants,” he continued. “If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.”

The Tea Party favorite then laid out an immigration proposal that shares many elements with the bipartisan Senate plan endorsed by Paul’s potential 2016 rival, Marco Rubio, among others. Paul’s plan calls for strengthening border security, and eschewing mass deportations in favor of creating a “probationary period” during which undocumented immigrants could receive work visas (the total number of which would be determined by a bipartisan panel.)

“The modernization of our visa system and border security would allow us to accurately track immigration,” Paul said. “It would also enable us to let more people in and allow us to admit we are not going to deport the millions of people who are currently here illegally.”

Despite reports that Paul would support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he ultimately stopped short of this crucial step. “Conservatives, myself included, are wary of amnesty,” Paul said. “My plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line.”

Advisors to Paul stressed that point to The Washington Post shortly after the speech, saying “What his plan is extending to them is a quicker path to normalization, not citizenship, and being able to stay, work and pay taxes legally,” and noting that “he does not mention ‘path to citizenship’ in his speech at all.”

Critically, Paul’s plan would not move forward until an Inspector General and Congress verify that the U.S.-Mexico border is “secure.” Congress would also have to “vote each year for five years whether to approve or not approve a report on whether or not we are securing the border” in order for the number of probationary work visas to expand.

Paul did not specify what “secure” actually means, leaving the virulently anti-immigration wing of the Republican party a clear path to derailing the process.

Despite the technical deficiencies in Paul’s plan, the senator’s speech certainly represented a rhetorical shift towards a more lenient policy. Paul delivered several lines in his admittedly imperfect Spanish, and shared several anecdotes from his youth in Texas that aimed to demonstrate his love and respect for Latino culture. Additionally, Paul closed his speech with a quote from the Pablo Neruda poem “Si Tú Me Olvidas.”

Clearly, Paul has come a long way from 2010, when he endorsed sealing the border with an electrified underground fence. He’s also a long way from his father, Ron Paul, whose 2008 presidential platform featured an unhinged conspiracy theory that NAFTA is “just one part of a plan to erase the borders between the U.S. and Mexico,” merging them with Canada into the “North American Union,” a state “with a new unelected bureaucracy and money system.” The younger Paul’s gentler tone reflects the GOP’s growing awareness that no candidate with an immigration plan like Mitt Romney’s can win future national elections.

But Paul’s softer rhetoric may not ultimately make a difference in his potential 2016 campaign. Although he argued Tuesday that “Hispanics should be a natural and sizable part of the Republican base,” there is ample polling data suggesting that Hispanic voters would reject his vision of an extremely small, weak federal government.

The full text of Paul’s speech can be read here.

AP Photo/Aron Heller, File

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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