We’re now being told that House Republicans are set to roll out “principles” governing the sort of immigration reform they’d be willing to accept. Most reports suggest they will include some form of legalization for the 11 million — but not citizenship, of course, since that’s “amnesty.”

So it’s worth clarifying a point that continues to be largely misunderstood: There is a compromise route to immigration reform — one that does not include a “special pathway” to citizenship — that many Dems and advocates might accept, though this isn’t usually stated aloud. The question is whether Republicans can get to that middle ground. The answer may well determine whether reform happens.

National Journal has a remarkable report today detailing the thinking among House Republicans:

According to House leadership and immigration-policy aides, the principles will be broad, nebulous even, and heavily focused on Republicans’ favorite immigration issue —border security. It will not include any concrete proposal, they said. Indeed, the wording is likely to be intentionally squishy, giving lawmakers lots of room to maneuver.
But no matter what happens, Boehner will come out a winner just for the effort. If it flops over hardliners’ objections to anything that approaches amnesty for illegal immigrants, Boehner and Republican campaign leaders looking for cash can still tell the business community they tried. What’s more, it could lay the groundwork for a Republican overture to Hispanic voters, a group everyone sees as critical to winning in 2016. […]
By the time the principles go public (or are leaked), leadership hopes to have more than half of the conference on board. Then, according to aides, the plan is to gauge public reaction. If House members are deluged with nothing but hate mail from their districts, Republicans might decide to do nothing but emphasize border security…But if leadership’s principles receive some positive feedback, Goodlatte, Cantor, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., could advance legislation they have discussed for the last several months.

If the feedback is generally positive, National Journal reports, Republicans may feel freer to move forward with some form of legalization measure for the 11 million — again, one that does not include citizenship.

If this report is right — and it dovetails with everything those plugged deeply into the debate believe — then half the intent here is to make it look as if Republicans are willing to do something on immigration, even if nothing happens in the end. Also, note that Republican leaders plan to try to round up “more than half” the conference behind something (if they can brave the “hate mail” from the right). Translated, what that means is Republicans know they will need to pass something with a lot of Democrats.

And this brings up the question that looms at the center of this whole debate: Is the GOP intent to merely pass something, in order to say to Democrats, “take it or leave it,” just to show that Republicans are not hopelessly in the grip of their nativist base and are willing to entertain reform and solve problems? Or do Republicans believe their political problem with Latinos is pressing enough that they need to participate in getting to compromise on something approaching comprehensive reform, which would require them to craft a proposal that can win enough Dems to get it through the House?

Here’s where the unstated route to success comes in. It all turns on the term conservatives hate: “special pathway to citizenship.”

There is a way Republicans could embrace legalization that Dems could ultimately accept. Dems could insist that if Republicans don’t want a special pathway to citizenship for the 11 million, then the normal channels to citizenship for everyone must be unclogged. That means removing various currently existing barriers to green cards (which start the path to citizenship) for those who would be sponsored by employers or family members. Reformers believe you can get to citizenship for many of the 11 million this way.

The details are extremely wonky on how that would work, but a new report finds that such methods could result in citizenship for up to 6.5 million people. That’s short of 11 million, of course, but it gets within striking distance of comprehensive reform, and there are reasons to believe Dems and advocates might accept such an endgame.

And so, a good way to call the GOP’s bluff — if they do introduce “principles” that include legalization — is to ask whether they’re also willing to reform the system in ways that make the path to citizenship easier for everyone. In this scenario, Republicans get their talking point — “no special pathway” — and it would be true. But it would also go some way towards solving the problem. And that’s the step no one knows whether Republicans are really willing to take.