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Immigration Reform in 2013: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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Cross-posted at Huffington Post.

After the president’s resounding reelection over his Massachusetts-based challenger, many pointed to the president’s performance among Latino voters as critical. The president had won close to a record percentage of Latino voters for a candidate from his party, a crucial fact in an election featuring the greatest-ever number of Latino voters. His campaign’s historic appeal to Latinos was a major factor in battleground state victories in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

Though the above paragraph could be talking about President Obama’s 2012 reelection, it describes George W. Bush’s 2004 triumph. Bush received approximately 40 percent of the Latino vote nationwide in his campaign against Democratic nominee John Kerry. Just eight years later Mitt Romney received just 23 percent of votes from a much larger Latino electorate. What accounts for such a game-changing decline in Hispanic support for the Republican Party? Mostly it’s the GOP’s recent embrace of a hardline stance on immigration.

Watch Huff Post Live discuss Obama on immigration with Frank Sharry, Elise Foley, Alicia Menendez, Simon Rosenberg, and Jenny Yang:

George W. Bush called for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants. Mitt Romney promised to veto the DREAM Act, called Arizona’s crackdown a “model” and embraced the hard right’s ugly strategy of “self-deportation” — code for nothing less than a purge of millions of Latino immigrants from the country. Bush’s message: “We like you. Please join us.” Romney’s message: “You ‘illegals’ should pack up and go home.”

But wasn’t President Obama also under fire from Latinos and their allies for his immigration record? You bet. He failed to fulfill his promise to make comprehensive immigration reform a first-term priority. His administration ramped up deportations to record levels. Not surprisingly, in late 2011 his approval ratingsfell below 50 percent among Latino voters, a constituency he needed to mobilize and win by at least a 2-to-1 margin to win reelection.

But Obama turned things around with his bold June 15 announcement to protect young undocumented immigrants eligible for the DREAM Act. The president’s decision to halt deportations and offer work permits to over 1 million young people delivered a huge spike in Latino voter enthusiasm. In addition, it won broad support from voters across the electorate and put Romney and the Republicans on the defensive.

The die was cast. On Election Day Latinos turned out in record numbers for Obama. It helped him win Florida, Nevada, Colorado and Virginia. Extensive Election Eve polling by Latino Decisions made it clear that Obama’s boldness and Romney’s hawkishness on immigration were a decisive factor.

For Democrats this proved that the best way to deal with this so-called Republican wedge issue is not to run from it but to lean into it. This is what Harry Reid in Nevada and Michael Bennet in Colorado did in 2010, with evident success. In 2012 President Obama showed that it could work on a national scale. (Read the new America’s Voice report on immigration lessons from the 2012 elections for more 2012 analysis).

What does this mean for 2013 and 2014? It means that the president will make immigration reform his top post-fiscal-cliff legislative priority. Democrats are more united than ever on immigration and are determined to make Republicans play or pay. Meanwhile, movement conservatives and Republican leaders alike are seeing the demographic writing on the wall and calling for the GOP to embrace immigration reform. They know that the party faces an existential crisis: The GOP has to regain its competitiveness with Hispanic voters or go the way of the Whigs.

So what is likely to happen?

A broad legislative proposal, one that puts 11 million undocumented immigrants on the road to citizenship, will be championed by the president, drafted on a bipartisan basis and approved by the Senate, with bipartisan support, sometime this spring. With comprehensive immigration reform favored by the public by a 2-to-1 margin, a bipartisan breakthrough in the Senate could send those numbers as high as 3 to 1.

Then it will be up to the House of Representatives. Once again Speaker Boehner will find a bipartisan majority in the House, but not if he insists on a “majority of the majority.” And while he will feel pressure from some on the hard right to resist reform, he will feel at least as much pressure from others on the right, such as business executives, evangelicals, law enforcement officials, Latino Republicans and conservative thought leaders. In the end the House leadership will find a way. They simply will not want to bear the blame for keeping the Senate and the White House out of reach for Republicans for a generation.

The bottom line: Immigration reform is an idea whose time has come. Americans want it, Democrats have promised it and Republicans need it.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost’s Elise Foley, click here. To read the companion blog post by Mark R. Kennedy of the George Washington University, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.