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In the epic debate over immigration reform, there’s one thing that Democrats and Republicans ought to agree on: It’s not good to have 11 million undocumented people eking out a living in the underbelly of the economy.

Even Representative Steve King, of Iowa, who famously declared that the children of undocumented immigrants have "calves the size of cantaloupes" from hauling marijuana across the desert, has to acknowledge that — calves aside — we actually don't know much about the undocumented. About 40 percent have overstayed their visas. But the rest slipped across the border, without filling out a single form. In an era of big data and exhaustive census records, we don't even know their names.

For all sorts of reasons — from national security to economic justice — this population ought to be brought out of the shadows.


But how do we do that?

A massive immigration bill passed by the Senate earlier this year creates a new visa category — "Registered Provisional Immigrant" — that would allow the undocumented to stay if they register, pass a background check, and pay their assessed taxes plus a $1,000 penalty. "Registered Provisional Immigrants" — let's call them RPIs — who steer clear of the law would eventually obtain green cards and then citizenship over the course of more than a decade.

But the Republican-controlled House has categorically refused to pass anything like the Senate bill.

Some of the deepest opposition stems from fear that it would create 11 million newly minted Democratic voters, a prediction that led Rush Limbaugh to dub the bill "GOP Suicide."

Others argue that giving undocumented immigrants citizenship rewards lawbreakers. Among Tea Partiers, "amnesty" is a dirty word. Almost as dirty as "Obamacare."

But behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, people are asking this question: What if the undocumented registered as RPIs, and then just stayed that way forever?

"If you knowingly violated our law . . . I think we should normalize your status but we should not give you a pathway to citizenship," Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican who is a former immigration lawyer, suggested earlier this year.


Under this still-nebulous solution, RPIs could still live and work here, but they would only become full-fledged citizens through existing paths, such as marriage or military service.

This idea perfectly addresses Republican anxieties: RPIs wouldn't be eligible to vote, so they wouldn't increase the rolls of the Democratic Party. They won't be eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, or unemployment insurance, so they wouldn't excessively burden the federal budget. And while some call any type of legalization "amnesty," legal residency is a far smaller "reward" than citizenship.

So what wrong's with making RPIs the basis for a bipartisan compromise?

"Nothing," said Edward Alden, specialist on immigration at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I really think it's the best we're going to get."

Yet, some Democrats still reject anything short of a path to citizenship. They argue that the notion of permanent non-citizen workers runs counter to the American dream.

It's true. The United States gives temporary relief from deportation to certain groups — victims of natural disasters, for instance — but we have never created a wholesale class of people who are allowed to work here indefinitely but not become citizens.

Other countries have tried it: The European Union gives "long-term" residency status to people who have lived there five continuous years, but only if they can prove they have a steady income and health insurance.

During a worker shortage in the 1980s, ethnically homogenous Japan gave out "long-term resident" visas to the descendants of Japanese immigrants born in places like Brazil. But in 2009, after unemployment soared, Japan began offering them $3,000 each to go back home.


Here, unlike Japan and Europe, immigrants and their ability to "make it" are a key part of the American story. If that changes, something fundamental about us might change, too.

Still, the RPI compromise should be explored. Even Congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez, a Chicago Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform, said in a speech last week that it's not a "deal breaker." Undocumented workers living on the edges of society do "not have the luxury of holding out for the perfect Democratic bill," he said. As flawed as the RPI compromise may be, it's better than the broken system we have now.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.