WASHINGTON — Tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul said Tuesday that the nation’s illegal immigrants should be able to become citizens eventually, but amid a furor from conservative activists on the explosive issue he quickly sought to make clear that, while they would not be sent home, they couldn’t get in line in front of anyone else.

What he doesn’t support, the Kentucky Republican said, is amnesty or a new pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. He said he simply believes they should be able to stay in the country on what he called probationary status. “You get in the normal line to citizenship that’s already available, so it’s not a new pathway, it’s an existing pathway,” Paul told reporters.

The dust-up underscored how semantics matter in the volatile debate over immigration, especially for a conservative who may seek the presidency in 2016. Twitter users were already dubbing Paul’s stance “Randmesty,” while an anti-immigration group, NumbersUSA, deemed his proposal “radical” and predicted that Kentucky residents would be “disappointed and maybe even shocked.”

Paul himself ended up telling reporters on a conference call that both the terms “amnesty” and “path to citizenship” were better avoided because they just cloud the debate and prevent immigration reform from happening. “We’re trapped if we get lost in those terms,” he said.

Earlier in the day, in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul issued an appeal to conservatives to get involved in the immigration debate and warned that the GOP risks “permanent minority status” if it doesn’t win over more Hispanics.

“Let’s start that conversation by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport” the millions already in the country, Paul said. “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.”

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

Paul spoke a day after a Republican National Committee report called on the GOP to support comprehensive immigration reform, though without specifying whether it should include a pathway to citizenship.