Instead of comprehensive immigration reform, House Republicans have produced a piece of paper. Their eight-paragraph statement of principles, released after a party retreat last week, is as vague as it is concise. Meanwhile, opposition to reform remains intense among many Republican voters and intellectuals, not to mention House members themselves.

All that said, these principles are encouraging for their mere existence. House Speaker John Boehner obviously wants very much to pass immigration legislation. Whether he can do so may turn on the difference between two words -- “citizenship” and “legalization” -- and whether House Republicans see both as synonyms for “amnesty.”

In a sense, they are right not to see any difference. Millions of foreigners are unable to pursue their dreams of coming to the U.S. because of immigration restrictions. Legalization just adds injury to their insult: It may not provide all the benefits of U.S. citizenship, but it grants a rare privilege to those who crossed the border illegally while continuing to shut out the law-abiding masses.

Sadly, U.S. immigration policy has never much honored such scruples. At best, the immigrant experience has been messy, unfair and sometimes manically ad hoc. It’s worth noting, however, that it has also been one of the great successes in the history of nations, the benefits of which grow more pronounced in a more global economy.

The estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. constitute sensate facts on the ground. The real-world options for dealing with them come down to three: Deport them, legalize them (with or without a path to citizenship) or do nothing about them.

Both sides of the debate say they detest the status quo, which allows undocumented immigrants to stay but marginalizes them socially, politically and economically. What about deportation? President Barack Obama has already deported a record number of undocumented immigrants, with little to show for it except family devastation.

That leaves some form of legalization or citizenship. Critics worry the U.S. is unprepared to absorb so many newcomers, who typically have limited educations and work for low wages in unskilled jobs. Working- and middle-class Americans are under duress from declining or stagnant wages. Social Security and Medicare will soon shoulder the full brunt of baby-boomer retirements. Will millions of legal immigrants overwhelm an already strained social safety net?

Poverty and meager education have been recurring features of American immigrants. Yet each successive wave has overcome its disadvantages. To bet against the rise of the newest immigrants is to bet against the fierce ambition that propelled them here, against the adaptability of American capitalism, against the endurance of the American dream. Tough times or no, such pessimism is unjustified.

Indeed, perhaps the most important goal of immigration reform is freeing immigrants to invest in themselves and their children, and freeing businesses to invest in their workers. The best way to accomplish this is through citizenship.

Citizenship, however, seems more than a divided Republican conference can bear. That leaves legalization as the goal, putting the children of undocumented workers on a fast track to citizenship and everyone else somewhere on a path less certain than citizenship yet more secure than limbo.

The institutionalization of a second class of residents who don’t have political rights is far from ideal. However, provided the ultimate legal hoops are not too onerous, and legalization is not directly tied to the government’s success in meeting enforcement targets for which no immigrant can be held accountable, it’s a compromise worth making.

Many immigrants-rights groups have already signaled they would accept it. So should House Republicans -- and labor leaders, who are already starting to grumble about the possibility of legalization instead of citizenship. “Legal resident” is a less honorable designation than “citizen,” but it is decidedly better than “undocumented worker” or “illegal alien.”

To contact the editor responsible for this article: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.