The road to meaningful U.S. immigration reform will no doubt prove rocky and difficult, but at least Washington has taken its first big step on the most critical part of the route — down the so-called "path to citizenship" that now has bipartisan support in the Senate. That's quite a change since 2010 when so many in the GOP invoked the term "amnesty" as a dirty word.

That's not to suggest that the findings of an eight-person work group have provided the definitive answer for the nation's dysfunctional immigration policy, but getting four prominent Republican senators to sign off on a path to citizenship is a notable accomplishment. Even if the path to citizenship the senators endorsed for the country's 11 million illegal immigrants has quite a few strings attached (including some that seem unnecessarily punitive).


What the senators released Monday may lack certain specifics, but the general outline is clear. Illegal immigrants who want to become permanent residents are going to have to jump through quite a few hoops, including paying back taxes, undergoing a criminal background check, and waiting in the "back of the line" behind those who legally applied for citizenship. A commission composed of Southwest border state governors and others will also have to verify that the U.S. border is secure.

There's more, of course. The proposal is also aimed at expanding the guest worker visa program and addresses two particularly galling issues — children who are brought into this country illegally and those who have earned advanced college degrees and have vital skills — in an attempt to keep both in the country legally.

President Barack Obama is likely to offer a somewhat more streamlined approach to immigration reform Tuesday in Las Vegas, but, in principle, the sides may not be that far apart. At least they will both likely offer a more rational response to 11 million immigrants than the expectation that, with sufficient pressure or incentive, they will somehow "self-deport" to countries many left in economic desperation.

The motivations behind Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Arizona's John McCain and Jeff Flake is not difficult to discern. All recognize that their party has no future on the national stage if Hispanic voters continue to desert them as strikingly as they did in the last election.

The Democrats, too, understand that they must make immigration reform a far more important policy matter if they are to retain support from the nation's fastest growing voter bloc. Mr. Obama has already indicated it will be a top priority this term.

Will the "tough, practical and fair" approach endorsed by the Senate Republicans find support in the House where tea party politics dominate? It's too early to tell, but conservative commentators wasted no time in taking out their long knives on the "amnesty" provision. No matter how many protections are built into the bill, from tougher sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants to denying certain government benefits to those seeking legal presence, many in the GOP are going to find it a tough vote.

Yet there are hopeful signs. Rep. Paul Ryan has come out in favor of such reform, as have a few others. And should the Senate pass a bill quickly — perhaps as early this spring — a lot of political pressure will be brought to bear on the House, particularly if Republicans are serious about capturing a Senate majority in 2014 or having any shot at retaking the White House two years later.

And speaking of the White House, one of the best arguments we've heard so far about "amnesty" is from Senator Rubio, a possible presidential candidate in four years. The existing, unworkable system of immigration with its random, punitive deportations amounts to a "de facto amnesty," the conservative Cuban-American wrote recently.

Meanwhile, the Senate will have to explore how many of these "strings" attached to the path of citizenship are really necessary, productive or even feasible and which are there simply to provide political cover. But at least the compromise casts the issue in a more reasonable light: Immigration reform is about making this country stronger by bringing millions of people out of the shadows and into full, productive roles as U.S. citizens.