Despite press reports, it appears Sen. Rand Paul’s immigration proposal is strikingly different from existing proposals in one critical respect: It does not confer immediate legalization on the estimated 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally.

The Gang of Eight proposal, although still not in legislative form, would create a three-step process for reform.  The first step would be immediate legalization for all those here illegally, provided they do not have a serious criminal record.  The second step would be increased border security.  And the third step would be a path to citizenship.

Paul, according to top aides, would begin with border security, without immediate legalization.  Under his proposal, the border would have to be verified secure by some government agency and then — this is a key step for Paul — voted on by Congress on a yearly basis.  Only after Congress declares the border secure would the process of legalization, and then a path to citizenship, begin.

It’s a huge difference for conservatives who object to the immediate legalization measures now under consideration.  “The border security has to be first and verifiable,” before anything, including legalization, happens, says a Paul aide.

In addition, Paul believes forcing Congress to verify border security will greatly increase the chance that border security is real, and not a charade.  “We feel like if you just hand the Obama administration a big pile of reforms and say, ‘Oh, by the way, you have to tell us the border is secure’ — we will get the reforms and not the border security,” says the aide.

Finally, Paul envisions his reforms instituted piecemeal after the certification of border security — not all at once, and subject to delay if security lapses.