THE 11 MILLION For most liberals I suspect this is the heart of the bill — and not just because Democrats crave the approval of the country’s surging Latino constituency. (Although, come to think of it, isn’t responding to the electorate what democracies are supposed to do?) The status quo is an undocumented underclass of families living in fear, subject to exploitation and scapegoating, depressing wages by working off the books, denied any say in how they are governed. Unless you think it is realistic to forcibly deport a population the size of New York City plus Chicago (and 21 percent of Americans subscribe to that heartless notion, according to the latest Pew poll), you have to let them out of the shadows.

Most of the debate focuses on the path to citizenship — 13 years for adults, a shorter time for those brought here as children. Citizenship is important, and 13 years is a long time to wait. That is the concession advocates of full equality made in fairness to others who played by the rules, and as a disincentive to future illegal immigrants.

But while they are on that long path, they are legal residents of America. Soon after the bill becomes law, undocumented workers who have not been convicted of a serious crime can apply for legal status as “registered provisional immigrants” — not voters, and not eligible for welfare or food stamps or insurance subsidies under Obamacare, but free to work, study, travel (including out of the country) without the fear of being snatched from their families and deported.

To me, and I think most residents of the undocumented netherworld, the long path to citizenship is a fair price to pay for the short path out of hiding.