There was rare good news from Washington last week, as eight senators—four from each party—announced a "Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform."
The so-called Gang of Eight proposed a "tough but fair path" to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that would commence only after the federal government secured the borders and put in place systems to prevent foreigners from overstaying their visas and to help employers verify that any new hires are legal.
This "border-security first" approach would require those now in America without permission to surface, register with immigration officials, and pass a background check. Any person with a serious criminal record or who poses a national-security threat would be deported. The rest would have to pay fines and back taxes to earn "probationary legal status."
Then they would have to wait to begin the process of applying for a green card and (if they choose) for citizenship until after a commission of border-state governors, attorneys general and community leaders affirm that the border is under operational control.
This means the process of regularization could take years—perhaps longer than a decade. Meanwhile, these "probationary legal residents" would not be eligible for welfare, ObamaCare or other public assistance.
The Gang of Eight framework also calls for a market-driven guest-worker program. This isn't only important for sectors like agriculture. It is also critical to reducing pressure on the border and making operational control more likely.
The bipartisan plan would also increase U.S. competitiveness by giving a green card to foreign students graduating from American universities with a Ph.D. or master's degree in science, technology, engineering and math.
Gang of Eight member Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) was incorrect to say that this framework mirrors previous immigration proposals. Making any path to citizenship contingent upon first securing the border distinguishes this approach from earlier ones, including the 2007 legislation advocated by President George W. Bush.
Moreover, the ideas behind the approach are popular. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday found 83% of those surveyed support stricter border control while 55% favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The framework of the proposed reforms highlights the persuasive powers of Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), who reportedly helped convince Senate Democrats that "border-security first" and a difficult, lengthy but attainable path to citizenship are essential to making reform both possible and durable.
A bipartisan House group is also at work on immigration. Among the Republican congressmen reportedly involved are John Carter and Sam Johnson, both Texans generally skeptical of offering illegal immigrants a path to legal status. Also involved is tea partier Raul Labrador of Idaho and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida. The presence of these congressmen in the discussion suggests an understanding among House Democrats that border security is a necessary precondition for getting a bipartisan deal.
But there are potentially significant differences between President Obama and the Gang of Eight. An unnamed administration official told the Washington Post last week that Mr. Obama would not endorse a security-first proposal. The White House has also signaled that the president favors a fast, easy path to citizenship. And while Mr. Obama didn't mention guest workers when he spoke about immigration in Las Vegas last week, AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka—an avowed opponent of any guest-worker program—sat in the front row.
The president can sabotage a deal by insisting on provisions (such as automatic citizenship or protections for same-sex couples) that appeal to his base but make it impossible to earn passage through the Republican-controlled House. If he does so, he would show that he is more interested in using immigration as a political weapon than in finding a solution.
To resolve this issue, Mr. Obama should play it low-key. In this instance, unlike in foreign policy, the president ought to lead from behind. That means supporting the framework agreed to by members of Congress, not insisting on his own. That should be easy enough. After all, Mr. Obama hasn't offered a concrete immigration proposal for four years. It would be good if he didn't try now.
Being constructive also means cooling his rhetoric. That won't be easy for the reflexively polarizing president. The Gang of Eight rushed to issue its framework the day before Mr. Obama's Las Vegas speech to discourage him from saying something that might undermine a bipartisan effort. They largely succeeded: The president reportedly toned down his remarks. With Mr. Obama, this constitutes impressive progress.
Members of Congress from both parties know that Mr. Obama can't be counted on to lead in a way that narrows differences and brings people together. The best to hope for is that the president chooses not to make himself an impediment to bipartisanship. If that happens, it will be a first for Mr. Obama. Here's hoping.
A version of this article appeared February 7, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How the President Can Aid Immigration Reform and online at WSJ.com.