The math is not there in presidential elections. The GOP will not regain the White House unless and until it gets a greater share of votes in huge turnout elections from non-white voters. When the white segment of the electorate is 72 percent (as it was in 2012), Republicans can’t win in enough states doing as poorly as they have been doing with other ethnic and racial groups. That necessitates refinement in messaging, improved and diverse candidate selection, and the ability to navigate the language barrier for multiple groups. But there is simply no way to begin the conversation without immigration reform.

So long as Republicans talk about “self-deportation” and refuse to acknowledge that we will never round up 11 million or so illegal immigrants, Republicans will not begin to make inroads with Hispanics or other minority groups, including Asian Americans. The GOP should be the party of legal immigration, upward mobility and assimilation if it wants to be the party of economic freedom and a majority party.

To my surprise, key players in the GOP now seem to understand this. House Speaker John Boehner, fresh from jump-starting grand-bargain talks, also made the first move on immigration reform. The Hill reports:

This issue has been around far too long,” Boehner said in the ABC interview. “A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee, called Boehner’s comments a “breakthrough.”

“Democrats in the Senate look forward to working with him to come up with a bipartisan solution,” Schumer said in a statement

The president has said that immigration reform would be a top priority if he were elected to a second term.

At the same time, a prominent voice in the grassroots announced the light bulb had gone on over his head as well. Politico reports:

Sean Hannity said Thursday he has “evolved” on immigration and now supports a “pathway to citizenship.”

Hannity told his radio listeners Thursday afternoon that the United States needs to “get rid of the immigration issue altogether.”

“It’s simple to me to fix it,” Hannity said. “I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here — you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved. The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records you can send them home, but if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done.”

The Post’s Charles Krauthammer has dubbed this the high wall-wide gate approach to immigration reform.

In a news release Jennifer S. Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network, praised Hannity’s comments: “Tonight’s comments embracing a fix to our broken immigration system is a critical step forward for conservatives and the country. Like most Americans, Hispanics are hardworking, entrepreneurial, and believe in conservative ideals like keeping more of what they earn, not crippling future generations with massive debt, and love of family. Yet while conservative in ideal and practice, most Hispanics simply aren’t and will never consider the conservative movement with its current tone and immigration stance. Tuesday’s results proved that. It is a profoundly positive step that a conservative leader like Sean Hannity supports sensibly fixing this broken system. I hope more conservatives follow Mr. Hannity’s lead.”

Certainly, as a matter of security we need to secure the border, but that is insufficient to resolve the issue. And it’s too late simply to do a me-too on the president’s executive-order-version of the Dream Act. (The Republicans seemed to be moving on the issue last summer, but the president outfoxed Sen. Marco Rubio and announced his order. Mitt Romney gave one speech but never made immigration reform a key part of his campaign.)

Those Republicans who tout their “law and order” credentials in opposing illegal immigration should be honest that what we have now is not law and order at all. It consists of turning a blind eye to our border problem, refusing to enforce existing law and passing unconstitutional state laws that Hispanic citizens see as harassment. It is not “amnesty,” as I have said many times, to require those here to go through an orderly process, including paying taxes and some monetary penalty (or community service) to become naturalized. And finally, conservatives are not furthering the goal of assimilation by forcing people into an underground economy.

A law-and-order approach means amendinglaws through proper congressional action, setting up a process for legalization and setting up reasonable measures to secure the border. It also entails expanding H-1B and student visas so as to supply skilled and educated workers to grow our economy. And it then means making real efforts to teach English and provide instruction in U.S. history and government.

If Republicans are to lead on this issue and survive intact, it will take a conservative movement-wide effort. Newly elected Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has been a stalwart proponent of immigration reform and carries weight with the right-wing of the party. Will other muscular conservatives, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) or libertarian favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), provide cover or will they instead savage their colleagues who are trying to solve a fatal defect in the party with a reasoned legislative approach?

Likewise, will Hannity be joined by right-leaning publications, Web sites and conservative talk-show stars, or do they think the way to hold onto their audience is by undermining efforts to expand the reach of the party? (Hey, it’s not like they turned out a presidential majority simply by raging at President Obama or repeating the same conservative nostrums.) And tea-party activists and other grassroots organizations (especially evangelicals) need to consider how constructive a role they want to play as well. Does Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich want to really do something for the movement? They can grow it and cultivate a legion of new voters by championing immigration reform.

Republicans should make a choice: Become a legislative party and debating society — or remain a national party that can compete successfully for the White House. If it is the latter, they should resist the urge to bludgeon Boehner, Rubio, Hannity, Jeb Bush and others who are determined to solve the party’s math problem and do something positive for the country. Healthy debate about the shape of legislation and robust discussion of why and whether we need it is essential. But to make this a “do this and we primary you” issue or to engage in vituperative language would be a grave error.