WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Rand Paul said Tuesday that illegal immigrants should be allowed to become U.S. taxpayers and ultimately get a chance to become citizens, a significant step for the Tea Party favorite amid growing Republican acceptance of the idea.

“Let’s start that conversation by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport” the millions already here, the potential 2016 presidential candidate told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “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.”

It was the latest sign that the Republican Party is moving to broaden its appeal to politically influential Latinos and other ethnic minorities after significant election losses last fall. Paul spoke a day after a Republican National Committee report called on the GOP to support comprehensive reform, though without specifying whether it should include a pathway to citizenship, which is decried by some conservatives as amnesty.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators is nearing agreement on sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration policy, an effort that could get a boost from Paul’s stance.

“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation and to be part of the solution,” Paul said.

The Kentucky Republican said for him to support probationary status for illegal immigrants, a stronger border must come first, and Congress must agree that border security has improved. The path to citizenship he envisions would come with other conditions, too, that would make it long and difficult for illegal immigrants to travel.

Underscoring the political risks conservative Republicans face in embracing citizenship for illegal immigrants, Paul never used the word “citizenship” in his warmly received 17-minute speech, and aides sought to emphasize that his focus is on border security and on getting illegal immigrants into a probationary legal worker status.

Indeed, amid concern from GOP activists after early media reports on the speech, Paul offered different explanations of his proposal.

The clearest reference to citizenship came in a copy of the speech Paul’s office provided to the media on Monday night.

In it, Paul says: “The solution doesn’t have to be amnesty or deportation – a middle ground might be called probation where those who came illegally become legal through a probationary period, and then enter another five-year period of holding a full green card.” Green cards are permanent resident visas, the holders become eligible after five years to obtain citizenship.

But Paul omitted any reference to green cards when he spoke Tuesday morning, and the reference was not included in the text of the speech handed out at the Hispanic Chamber event.

Questioned by reporters after his speech, Paul confirmed that illegal immigrants would ultimately be able to apply for citizenship under his plan. He said they would have probationary legal status and would have to get behind people already in line for citizenship. But they would not have to return to their home country, as now required.

“The biggest change really on immigration reform for getting to citizenship would be we’re not going to make you go to Mexico,” Paul told reporters. “You have an option to get in the line without going home and that’s the main difference from what we have now, as well as you get a work visa if you want to work.”