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Does Rand Paul support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants?

Did Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, R, endorse a pathway to citizenship in his speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this morning?

That’s what an Associated Press article previewing the speech said, as well as a report shortly before Paul’s speech published by Buzzfeed.

But the Kentucky senator made no mention of citizenship itself in his speech; he focused his remarks on the need for creating a “legal” status for the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

And an unnamed Paul adviser subsequently disputed to the Washington Post the idea that the popular conservative senator had, in fact, backed citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“The AP story was wrong, which spurred a lot of erroneous reports,” the adviser told the Post. “He does not mention ‘path to citizenship’ in his speech at all.”

The difference between citizenship and legal status might seem semantic, but it is an important distinction in the legislative battle over comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats believe that citizenship is an essential element of any final deal, and the bipartisan “Group of Eight” in the Senate working toward a compromise includes such a path in its framework.

The speech was good enough to win praise from Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, N.Y., a major Senate proponent of citizenship.

"The consensus continues to grow in favor of immigration reform that contains a path to citizenship," Schumer said in a statement. "While there are certainly differences between our emerging product and Senator Paul's outline, there is also a lot of common ground."

Paul explained the finer details of his plan to reporters following his speech. In essence, his plan would distribute indefinite work visas to qualified undocumented immigrants in stages, allowing them legal status in the United States. Once those workers have visas, they would then have the option of applying for citizenship – though not necessarily with any preferential or expedited pathway.

“You get in the same lines, you get in the line wherever you sign up, you don’t go to the front of any line,” he explained. “And I know that sounds silly, but front or back of the line seems to be this thing that’s really important to people. So what I would say is, you have the option to get in the line without going home. That’s the main difference from what we have now, as well as you get a work visa if you want to work.”

He also said he wasn’t necessarily comfortable with forcing those seeking citizenship to pay fines.

“And I’m not a huge fan of the fines, necessarily,” he said. “I think a lot of these immigrants are workers who don’t have a lot of money.”

A major sticking point, though, for Paul is subjecting certification of border security to a vote in Congress. In his plan, lawmakers would have an annual option to vote on an administration’s report that the border has been secured before moving forward with the visa process. He said he would try to amend the Group of Eight’s eventual legislation to include something like this.

“I want to try to amend their package, and I would likely vote for it if I could get mine on,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure whether failing to do so would lose his support.

The conflicting comments and careful language, though, reflect the political difficulty for conservatives in embracing comprehensive immigration reform, especially if it involves a pathway to citizenship. And he took strides to quell those concerns in his speech.

“My plan will not grant amnesty or move anyone to the front of the line,” he said.