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Last month, Mr. Paul, who picked up the libertarian banner his father championed throughout his career, endorsed a path to legalization for an estimated 11 million immigrants now living illegally in the United States.

While he avoids the term “citizenship,” which he thinks is a turn-off for conservative voters, it’s not something he rules out — though he told The Washington Post that at the outset, “there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally.

“Everybody’s going crazy — is it a pathway or isn’t it a pathway?” he said. “If everything is dumbed down to ‘pathway to citizenship’ or ‘amnesty,’ we’re not going to be able to move forward, because we’ve polarized the country.”

But Mr. Paul is not against illegal immigrants eventually becoming citizens, and he doesn’t think they must first return to their native country before seeking legalization.

Mr. Rubio, who has joined a bipartisan group of senators attempting to craft a plan it hopes to unveil this month, also supports a pathway to legalization and, ultimately, to citizenship. He has been cautious, though, not to move too fast, fearing it could be politically fatal to reform efforts to get too far ahead of its emerging base of support. It is better, he thinks, to gradually bring them along as the reform plan slowly evolves through the legislative process.

Last week, Mr. Rubio wrote to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, warning that he was moving too quickly, that hearings must be held first, and that there should be no “rush to legislate.” Better, he says, to first build a base of support before bringing a bill to the Senate floor.

That support is growing among the GOP’s large base of social conservatives and religious groups, who see reform as a cultural and moral issue. The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of groups in more than 100,000 churches, has launched a nationwide phone campaign to reach out to congressional lawmakers.

No one’s taking bets on whether immigration legislation will be enacted anytime soon, if at all, considering strong House opposition. The grass-roots climate has clearly changed, though, and the political needle in the Senate is inching toward passage.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.