BETTER LATE than never, a prominent Republican has begun fashioning a stance on immigration policy that breaks from GOP orthodoxy.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is Cuban American and a possible running mate for Mitt Romney, has broached the outlines of what would be a Republican version of the Dream Act. It would extend legal status — but no clear path to citizenship, as Democrats have sought — to young illegal immigrants brought to America by their parents.

Mr. Rubio clearly hopes his proposal might begin mending fences with Hispanic voters alienated by the hard line against undocumented immigrants that has featured in the Republican presidential primary. His idea qualifies as a genuine attempt at compromise; no Senate Republicans signed on as co-sponsors the last time Democrats introduced their Dream Act, in 2010.

Neither the Democratic version of the Dream Act nor the Rubio version qualifies as comprehensive immigration reform. Both might offer assistance to 1 million young people who go to college or serve in the military, while leaving 10 million undocumented immigrants in limbo. The details aren’t clear, but the danger in Mr. Rubio’s plan is creation of a kind of permanent second-class status. On the other hand, many young people might welcome a route out of the shadows, and the country would certainly benefit from their contributions.

So far, other Republicans are keeping their distance from Mr. Rubio’s proposal, and the most Mr. Romney has managed is a tepid we’ll-think-about-it. Political calculation may push him further. Republican strategists worry that GOP bills designed to hound illegal immigrants in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere are tilting Hispanics to President Obama in several Western swing states. Mr. Romney himself said as much the other day, fretting that the president’s support among Hispanic voters “spells doom for us.”

If so, Mr. Romney has himself partly to blame, having hailed Arizona’s draconian law as a model for the nation, urged similar measures in the hope that undocumented immigrants will “self-deport” and opposed the Dream Act.

If he now moderates those views, he won’t be the first candidate to try sidling toward the center after courting his party’s extremes in the primaries. But it would be nice if his shape-shifting were paired with some truth-telling: that illegal immigrants have vitalized the economy by doing jobs Americans don’t want; that it’s unfair, and antithetical to American values, to penalize immigrant children for the sins of their parents; and that eventually the nation will have to forge a solution for all 11 million illegal immigrants that does not rest on the fantasy of mass deportation — enforced or voluntary.