A leading conservative Republican in Congress who held hard-line views on immigration, including ardent opposition to legalizing undocumented immigrants, now supports measures that would include a path to legal status.

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, who is vice chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, said that like many of his conservative colleagues, he used to be loath to even discuss other aspects of immigration reform until the border was absolutely secure.

But that, said Poe in an interview with Fox News Latino, is both unrealistic and counterproductive.

“I’ve changed,” said Poe, who was first elected to Congress in 2004. “I used to think we had to do border security before we ever talk about other immigration issues. But we have to do them in tandem, because [otherwise] we’ll never get to those other issues. The border is really not secure because of the drug cartels.”

Now, Poe not only will discuss other immigration issues, but is going head-on against many of his fellow conservatives in his decision to support a path to legal status for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Poe’s softened stance is becoming more common among Republicans, notably among those who once were hawkish on immigration. Many of them point to the role that immigration – specifically the sometimes hard-line tone that underpinned discussions of the issue by Republicans – played in the bruising defeat of Republicans presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

They’re not leaving.They’re not going to go back to their countries, and what purpose would it serve for them to leave?

- Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, vice chair of the House immigration subcommittee

Latinos turned out to vote at a record rate, 10 percent, with 71 percent of them choosing President Obama and 27 percent voting for Romney. Latino population growth also upended many congressional districts – including Poe’s.  His district was about 10 percent Latino, but redistricting after the 2010 Census swelled his Latino constituency to 41 percent.

Poe, 64, maintains that his change of heart regarding some emotionally charged immigration issues comes from a realization that his former views are not in sync with reality or truly fixing the broken system.

And, he said, he’s not advocating rewarding illegal behavior.

“They’re not leaving,” Poe said of the millions of undocumented immigrants. “They’re not going to go back to their countries, and what purpose would it serve for them to leave?”

“It’s not automatic pathway to citizenship,” Poe said. “I don’t think that’s right, I agree that we shouldn’t reward people for being here illegally. But if you’re in the country without permission, you should register, we have to know who’s in the country. Then you would have legal status for a period of time, and you can stay here and work here during that time.”

He envisions a system of “tiered sanctions,” depending on the circumstances of a person’s illegal presence, and if they meet a strict set of criteria, such as staying out of trouble with the law and paying taxes, among other things.

He also supports giving undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors an opportunity to apply for legal status.

“The kids that are here and getting older, who are here through no fault of their own, we have to make sure they have the opportunity to get legal status,” Poe said.

He added, however, that he did not agree with Obama’s decision last year to suspend deportation for such immigrants for two years, and allow them to obtain work permits.

“The president basically waved the big wand and violated the constitution,” he said. “It is the responsibility of Congress to deal with immigration.”

Poe said that he knows many of his fellow conservatives, as well as some more moderate Republicans, see a pathway to legal status as “amnesty.”

That, he said, is a misperception.

Noting that he served for 22 years as a criminal court judge in Houston before serving in Congress, Poe said: “I know what amnesty means.”

“Amnesty is when there is no punishment or sanction for certain conduct,” he said. “There are sanctions if you’re here and want legal status, whether it’s temporary or permanent and you want to get citizenship.”

Those who support a hard line on immigration are watching the conversions on immigration in the Republican Party with concern. Many have criticized U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, for instance, for supporting a pathway to legalization, though the junior senator stresses that he is not compromising on border security.

“They say they’re having a change of heart,” said Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, one of the nation’s leading groups advocating for strict immigration policies. “But Washington is turning a deaf ear to the millions of Americans who are scratching their heads saying ‘What’s in [immigration reform] for me?’”

“The amnesty bill is splitting the Republican party right down the middle.”

Poe believes that Congress will pass an immigration reform bill this year.

He has misgivings about the Senate approach to dealing with a massive immigration bill, and thinks a better way is to have several smaller measures addressing different aspects.

He expects the House to deal with the matter in smaller, separate bills.

“When you have one big massive bill, it’s a lot easier to vote against it,” he said.

The road to a bill will be hard, Poe said.

“The debates in the party are pretty strong,” he said. “We have major differences in the conservative group.”

But Poe, known for not mincing words, vowed to keep trying to persuade his conservative colleagues.

“To my ‘amnesty’ friends, I tell them this: ‘You are approving an amnesty policy by not considering a path to legal status.’ We already have an amnesty problem, millions of people are living here already illegally. You are supporting that amnesty by choosing to do nothing.”

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached elizabeth.llorente@foxnewslatino.com

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