U.S. Senator Marco Rubio soft pedaled his earlier calls for comprehensive immigration reform in an interview Saturday in Georgia even as he criticized any attempt to deport those undocumented immigrants already living in the country as neither “feasible” nor “reasonable.”

Rubio, who spoke at the state Republican Party’s annual convention in Athens before raising campaign cash in suburban Atlanta, told the Marietta Daily Journal that he does not support amnesty for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in America but said the nation lacks any serious enforcement mechanism for immigration laws.

“We do need to improve our ability to enforce our immigration laws, because one of the reasons why we have an illegal immigration problem is because we don’t have mechanisms to effectively enforce our laws, particularly the visa overstays,” Rubio told the paper when asked why he believed local immigration hardliners were so wary of his campaign.

“[N]ot a single person in the Senate or House who has opposed any of these immigration efforts has ever proposed or come up with a way of how we’re going to round up and deport 12 million people,” he said. “It’s just not a feasible thing and the American public won’t tolerate it.”

Rubio also defended his view that providing a merit-based path to citizenship for those already here was not blanket immigration. From the newspaper’s transcript of the interview:

MDJ: “Deportation aside, what you described … basically amounts to a path to citizenship. And a lot of conservatives down here in Georgia see that as tantamount to a blanket amnesty. How would that position help your chances of winning the primary down here?”

Rubio: “Well, I don’t know about that. I certainly don’t believe that’s a blanket amnesty. A blanket amnesty is where you decide, ‘OK, if you meet a certain criteria we’re going to give you something in exchange for nothing, we’re going to forgive what you’ve done.’ That’s not what I’ve described. I’ve described a process whereby people who meet a certain criteria, meaning they’ve been in this country a decade or longer, would have to come forward. They would have to pass a background check, and you can make that background test as strict or as lenient as you want. I believe that it needs to be stricter and not more lenient. They’ll have to pay a fine as a consequence of violating the laws. They’ll have to learn English and they’ll have to start paying taxes. In exchange for all that, the only thing they would get is a work permit, and that’s all they would have for at least a decade or longer, and then at some point after that period of time has expired, the only thing they would be allowed to do is apply for a green card. They would have to do it just like anybody else would, including people who are here legally or people that are abroad. And that would also take a significant period of time. Some people argue that all they should ever be allowed to have is a work permit. If that’s the best we can do, I could support a proposal like that. I just certainly don’t believe that it’s good for the country to have 11 or 12 million people here who are here permanently and can never become Americans. But if the only way forward is to limit it to the work permit for the rest of their lives as a consequence of violating their laws that’s certainly better than what we have now.”