WASHINGTON -- Republican opposition to legalizing the status of millions of illegal immigrants is crumbling in the nation's capital, as leading lawmakers in the party scramble to halt eroding support among Hispanic voters -- a shift that is providing strong momentum for an overhaul of immigration laws.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party Republican, on Tuesday became the latest to embrace a more welcoming approach, declaring to the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants that if they want to work in America, "then we will find a place for you." While he never uttered the word "citizenship" and said a secure border must come first, he strongly implied that citizenship would eventually be available to them.
Republican sentiment for a more liberal immigration policy has been building in the aftermath of last year's election. But Mr. Paul's comments provided strong new evidence that the rising generation of conservative leaders is turning against the Republican argument that those who enter the country illegally should be denied the chance to become permanent residents.
"Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society," Mr. Paul said in a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The remarks are a departure for Mr. Paul, who as a Senate candidate in 2010 called for an electronic fence and helicopter stations to help secure the border with Mexico.
His new message follows the publication Monday of a blistering report from the Republican National Committee that urged the party's members to champion an immigration overhaul that Hispanics can embrace or risk seeing the party shrinking "to its core constituencies only." The report left vague, however, just what that "comprehensive" overhaul would include.
Mr. Paul joins Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a growing list of leading conservatives to urge a new approach on immigration. Mr. Rubio is part of a bipartisan group of eight senators who are working to create an immigration overhaul that can earn support from both parties.
Some Republicans, including Mr. Paul, remain wary of any plan that would move illegal immigrants ahead of those who are in the country legally when it comes to getting full citizenship.
That view is particularly strong in the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner on Tuesday dodged the question of whether a separate, bipartisan group in his chamber working on immigration legislation would back a path to citizenship. But the House plan is expected to include some way for illegal immigrants to gain legal status.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., released a letter Tuesday urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to move slowly, explaining to a group of reporters that there is no "moral or legal responsibility to reward somebody who entered the country illegally."
But Washington's new political landscape contrasts sharply with just a few years ago, when most Republicans derided the idea of legalized status for illegal immigrants as a form of amnesty that would simply encourage more people to cross the border illegally.
The overall shift in sentiment means that four months after Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, made "self-deportation" the party's official position on immigration -- and lost decisively to President Barack Obama, especially among Hispanic voters -- top party strategists and lawmakers of all ideological stripes are racing to change course.
Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, conceded Tuesday that "it certainly appears to be settled, if one assumes that the inside Republican elite strategists represent the core of the Republican Party."
But it remains to be seen how GOP voters and conservative activists across the nation will respond to proposals that let illegal immigrants live in America and compete legally for jobs. Mr. Dane's group is meeting next month in Washington with 52 talk-radio hosts for a two-day session intended to bolster opposition to the idea.
But the political climate has moderated, and many Republicans are being forced to accept, if not outright embrace, some form of legalization for illegal immigrants already in the country.
"I think they've found themselves on the road to Damascus, or they understand that this issue is very, very important," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is part of the bipartisan group in the Senate working on immigration legislation. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another Senate group member, put it more bluntly: "I just think the 2012 election was a bit of a wake-up call."
The group of eight senators is finalizing a provision that would allow the 11 million illegal immigrants to reach full citizenship in 13 years -- with a 10-year wait for a green card and three more years until citizenship.