It was always clear that the 11 million people in this country without papers were not going to be rounded up and deported. The question was when our leaders would officially recognize this fact -- which could only happen if Republicans decided that demonizing illegal immigrants was bad politics.
The November election answered that question. Mitt Romney said the magic word "self-deportation" and lost among Latino and Asian-American voters by nearly 3-to-1. Suddenly, the darkness lifted and Republicans began to see the light.
Some Republicans, but not all. Given the extensive overlap between the "principles" laid out by a bipartisan group of senators and those offered by President Obama, I believe there is a strong possibility that immigration reform can be accomplished within the next few months. But it still won't be easy.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the key member of the Senate's pro-reform "Gang of Eight," is being pilloried from the right for having the temerity to face economic, sociological and political reality.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called Rubio "amazingly naive on this issue" and also "nuts." Some of the conservative commentariat has been less reserved.
National Review editor Rich Lowry called the Senate plan a "scam" that is likely to become "a monument to bad faith." My colleague Charles Krauthammer called the proposal "highly misleading" and complained that it would lead to "instant legalization" for those here without papers. Rush Limbaugh has vowed to fight the measure with all he's got -- but predicted that he and other opponents would ultimately lose.
Many establishment figures in the party accept that the GOP cannot thrive, and perhaps cannot even survive, if the nation's biggest minority group becomes a permanent part of the Democratic Party coalition. They understand Rubio's analysis that immigration is a "threshold" issue for Latino voters -- that if Republicans are seen as uncompromising and even hostile on this issue, many Latinos will not even give the party a hearing on the rest of its philosophy and agenda. They recognize that undocumented workers are integral participants in the nation's economic life.
The central task of immigration reform is the most controversial: designing some sort of legal status for the 11 million.
Critics on the right complain that this is unfair to would-be immigrants who are "waiting in line" to come into the country by following the rules. Some would have to wait years; many, probably most, would never make it in.
Truly comprehensive reform would include designing a viable legal pathway for those who want to come here and contribute their ambition, determination and skills. No such pathway exists now -- and none existed for the millions who decided to enter the country without papers or overstay their visas.
Far as I can tell, there is little meaningful difference between the Gang of Eight's plan and Obama's plan. You will hear lots of noise about border security and enforcement. Feel free to pay no attention.
Pro- and anti-reform Republicans will both agree that the Obama administration is somehow weak on enforcement. This is a laughable fiction; border security is much tougher under Obama than under his predecessors, and deportations have soared. But perhaps a loud fight over enforcement will satisfy the Republican base and make agreement on real issues possible.
Republicans are eager to talk about some kind of temporary-worker program to accommodate those who come here -- mostly from Mexico and Central America -- with the intention of working for a time and then return to their home countries. Obama's framework for reform does not include a guest-worker provision, but the White House has indicated a willingness to look at the possibility.
Obama could have taken a different tack. He could have written detailed proposed legislation rather than lay out broad principles, and in that bill he could have specified a short, direct path to full citizenship for the undocumented -- something Republicans could not conceivably accept.
This would have further damaged the GOP, since Democrats would be able to tell Latino voters, "See? Once again the Republicans killed immigration reform. We're the ones who are on your side. Stick with us."
Instead, Obama and a group of influential senators of both parties will try to work together to bring 11 million people out of the shadows. Our government is tackling a big problem and may actually solve it. Imagine that.
-- Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.