SCARED WITLESS by a rising tide of brown voters, and with a majority of Americans wanting to reform immigration law and the handling of unregistered "guests," many Republicans have seen the light.

After dawdling for decades, the Senate came up with a bipartisan bill to fix the country's immigration problem. President Obama responded this week with a speech and his own plan.

The two plans are not far apart, but there are two problem points. Republicans demand border enforcement before anything else, and no, non, nyet to amnesty.

Democrats should be able to handle that, unless they prefer to politicize and demagogue it. I hope they don't.

While scattering immigration platitudes in his Tuesday speech in Las Vegas, Obama made a seemingly minor change from his July 1, 2010, address on immigration reform. In '10, he said, "We can create a pathway for legal status that is fair, reflective of our values, and works." (Emphasis added.)

Tuesday: "But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship." (Emphasis added.)

Let's be clear. No right-thinking American should oppose immigration. The issue is legality, doing things lawfully. Those who sympathize with the undocumented try to suggest that those who oppose illegal immigration are closet racists.

In the mainstream, you'll find widespread agreement now on allowing illegal immigrants to "earn" their citizenship. The president said we must "lay out a path - a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English and then going to the back of the line of people from your country of origin, behind all the folks coming here legally."

Most people supporting a path to citizenship agree the undocumented have to first get straight with America, then get to the back of the line. But not all.

The Rights Working Group, a coalition of more than 350 human-rights organizations, sent out a release right after the president's speech saying "a path to citizenship must not be so expensive and onerous that it leaves millions in limbo for lengthy periods."

What's does "lengthy" mean? People who arrive here legally must wait five years before they can become citizens, and the time they waited in their home country usually exceeds that, according to the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. Should uninvited "guests" get a faster ride?

No, they shouldn't. Few things are more sweet for America than immigration, and few things more sour than those who arrive illegally, then demand an ego massage.

The line-jumpers and visa-overstayers must not benefit from bad behavior, because that's an invitation for others to ignore our laws. Their path to citizenship should be slow, and it could take decades. If it does, combined with financial and other penalties, that's not amnesty and should mollify hard-core conservatives.

On Tuesday, the first issue Obama addressed was enforcement. He has a strong record on that, deporting more illegal "guests" than his predecessor, George W. Bush, the well-known bleeding- heart liberal.

Obama may have listed enforcement first because he knows Republicans want the enforcement before the pathway.

We ought to be able to walk and chew gum: Seal the borders, penalize bad behavior, create a slow path to citizenship.

Republicans aren't alone in remembering that, in 1986, after President Reagan agreed to amnesty followed by enforcement, we got amnesty, but not enforcement, resulting in the 11 million now here illegally.

If we fail to get enforcement - not just at the border, but in the workplace - we will "invite" millions more "guests" to arrive illegally, and we will repeat the same drama again.

That's a recipe for disaster.

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On Twitter: @StuBykofsky