Here’s a potential stumbling block for Sen. Marco Rubio’s strategy of whispering to the talk-radio right: If current immigration law, or what passes for it, is “de facto amnesty,” then the 11 or 12 million undocumented workers residing here illegally would have no incentive to “come out of the shadows” and take advantage of Rubio’s path to legal status.

Step back and recall the reason why many Republicans urgently want to tackle the immigration issue (other than to establish Rubio’s credentials as a reformer and policy wonk as preparation for a 2016 presidential run). Obviously, they want to improve the party’s image among Hispanics. Pace Mitt Romney, they would like to deliver a gift to a growing demographic.

To sell the plan to immigration restrictionists, however, Rubio must emphasize its punitive measures—its law-and-order litany of, as Romney-turned-Rubio booster Jennifer Rubin explains, monetary fines, back taxes, community service, and adverse treatment in the application for legal residence or citizenship.

At a certain level, this is how all large-scale legislative reforms work; you assemble a coalition by discretely highlighting the most appealing aspects of your proposal—access to medical care for the working poor, more customers for hospitals and insurers, lower costs (in theory!) for everyone, to use the Obamacare sales pitch as an example. If enough people think they’ll gain more than they lose, your reform stands a chance of becoming law. But Rubio appears to be playing this game to the point of internal contradiction. If he tells the likes of Mark Levin and Sean Hannity that current law is a better deal for undocumented workers, then what’s in it for undocumented workers? How would it tangibly improve their lives?

To be clear, I hope something like the Rubio-Bush-Obama framework eventually becomes law. While far from perfect, it’s better than the easily-flouted system currently in place. Maybe this PR flaw, as I see it, won’t matter much. At this point, it appears that both sides are hungry enough for a deal to ignore the dissonance of Rubio’s case for comprehensive reform.