Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry said the federal government should extend work visas permitting undocumented immigrants to move freely between the U.S. and their home countries, but stressed that he still opposes amnesty or a path to citizenship.

Speaking during an interview with CNN's John King on Thursday, the Texas governor said that expectations that U.S. authorities are going to arrest and deport up to 15 million undocumented immigrants isn't realistic. He added, however, that other Republicans, including fellow Texan George W. Bush, went too far when they previously proposed an immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship.

The Texas governor also claimed his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, had once supported amnesty. Romney has drawn criticism for hiring a lawn care company that employed undocumented immigrants at his family's property in a Boston suburb for a decade — but has also said amnesty is not appropriate for unauthorized immigrants.

"You can put a program into place in which these individuals can be identified, and work visas in which they can move back and forth between their countries but not to become United States citizens," Perry said. "And I think that's where McCain, that's where Romney, that's where even Bush went wrong when they talked about the issue that, 'we're going to give amnesty to these individuals,' and people just said, 'no, we're not.'"

Perry didn't elaborate on what such a visa plan would look like, saying only that authorities need to determine a better way to identify undocumented immigrants and make them part of mainstream society. He also said the program would only work if the federal government first does a better job securing America's borders.

"I disagree with the concept that somehow or another we're going to pack up 10, to 12, to 15 million people and ship them back to the country of origin. That's not going to happen," Perry said. "So realty has to be part of our conversation. And then you need to have a strategy to deal with it. That is what I think we will have, but first you have to secure that border."

I disagree with the concept that somehow or another we're going to pack up 10, to 12, to 15 million people and ship them back to the country of origin.

- Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Perry called Washington's efforts to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants "an abject failure" but said that, as president, he could accomplish the task in just a year using the existing fence, more border patrol agents and air surveillance. Perry also repeated his opposition to a fence running the length of the border, saying it would take 10 to 15 years to build.

"There's places where a secure fence will work, and that strategic type fencing will work," he said. "But the idea that people can easily just stand up and say 'let's just build a fence' and be done with it and wipe our hands, and it's going to secure the border, that's not reality."

Perry has seen his polling numbers plummet after a string of lackluster debate performances — and angered some conservatives by defending a Texas plan that extends in-state university tuition to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children and attend high school in Texas.

The governor again defended the initiative on Thursday, saying better education helps ensure those participating in the program contribute to society: "We want taxpayers, not tax wasters."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press. 

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