On Thursday, November 8, 2012 the anti-immigrant fever that gripped the Republican Party for the last decade unceremoniously broke as Fox News' Sean Hannity announced that he supported a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 12 million undocumented Americans in the country. This fever was characterized by misguided (and unconstitutional) state-based anti-immigrant laws, the demagoguing of minorities, and an almost messianic belief that Latinos would ignore the Republican Party's rabidly anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Mr. Hannity's change of heart reflects a truth that virtually everyone had acknowledged before the election: Republicans can no longer win national elections without softening their rhetoric, broadening their appeal, and supporting the creation of an immigration process that makes sense for this nation's approximately 12 million citizens in waiting. Hannity's "evolution" was mirrored by other conservative newsmakers, politicians, and pundits including Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and even Speaker of the House John Boehner. This evolution occurred not because of a newfound understanding of the issues close to the heart of the Latino community, but, as President Bill Clinton would put it, arithmetic.
Republicans not only lost Latinos -- they lost everyone. Aside from the white vote, Republicans lost virtually every single demographic group, including Asian-Americans, African-Americans, the youth vote, women, and Latinos.
But nowhere was the Republican Party's shrinking relevance more apparent than among Latinos, who comprised 10 percent of the electorate, overwhelmingly supported President Obama and played a strategic role in the swing states. Nationwide, 75 percent of Latino voters supported President Obama, breaking President Clinton's record of 72 percent in 1996. Critically, the share of Latino votes surpassed the national average in key battleground states, with 80 percent of Latinos in Nevada, 87 percent in Colorado and 82 percent in Ohio voting for President Obama. The Latino vote was also critical in Virginia (66 percent) and Florida (58 percent). Shockingly, in the latter state, President Obama racked up a large portion of the Cuban-American vote (48 percent) demonstrating Democratic inroads with a traditionally Republican demographic. Republicans are not only losing the Latino vote, they are losing it badly.
For the last decade, the Latino electorate was predicted to fundamentally shift the political environment toward pro-immigrant and pro-minority policies. That shift occurred on Tuesday. It is not an overstatement to say that the Latino vote delivered the presidency (and several Senate races) to Democrats. Now it is time for President Obama to quickly take advantage of the momentum now that Republicans seem to understand the basic lesson that extremism has no future. Thus, President Obama must work in a bipartisan manner and enact comprehensive immigration reform.
While the outline of CIR will be debated in the next few months, there are a few broad guidelines that any reform must follow. In addition to creating a roadmap to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented Americans in the country, Congress must also incorporate both the long-stalled DREAM Act and AgJobs. Nor can comprehensive immigration reform ignore so many of the other facets that comprise our broken immigration system. The one, three, and ten year re-entry bars must be abolished -- these bars only serve to make legal immigration harder and actually increase the number of undocumented Americans in the country. Congress must rescind the requirement to file asylum within one year, an onerous law which has significantly reduced the ability of immigrants to file legitimate asylum petitions.
Eligibility and visas must be expanded for family petitions to ensure that the United States has a functioning and efficient system of legal immigration -- no one should have to wait over two decades to obtain legal status. Congress must also reform the U-Visa system to make obtaining law enforcement certification easier for victims of serious crime and prevent law enforcement agencies from capriciously and arbitrarily refusing to provide certifications. America's detention system for immigrants has been routinely condemned as inhumane, inefficient, and wasteful -- any reform must include a serious look at reforming this draconian system.
Congress must also incorporate the Uniting American Families Act which would end sex-based discrimination and allow permanent partners of lawful permanent residents and United States citizens to obtain legal status. Lawmakers must also reform the national origin quota system which serves only to exclude otherwise qualified immigrants based solely on their country of origin. Finally, Congress must adopt a national framework which prevents states from passing a patchwork of laws that oppresses minorities, depresses economic activity, and infringes on the federal government's responsibility to enact immigration laws.
There is no time to wait; immigration reform will no longer be put on the back burner. There is already movement in the Senate, with Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham offering the broad outlines of a potential compromise immigration bill. Pundits and politicians are quickly beginning to realize what economists have known for years: immigration reform is key to growing the economy and putting Americans back to work.
Put bluntly, Mr. President, the Latino electorate delivered and it is time for you to do the same. The fog of partisanship, xenophobia, and extremism has temporarily faded from the immigration debate as individuals from all parties step forward and acknowledge a new reality shaped by the rising tides of changing demographics. Never before have all the factors necessary to accomplish immigration reform synchronized in such a way to make the reformation of our immigration system possible. The economy is rebounding, Republicans are coming back to the table, and the Latino electorate is the strongest it has ever been.
Mr. President, you said your biggest failure of your first term was the failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. The Latino community has given you a second chance to rectify that failure and the political momentum could not be better now that Republicans are getting on board. Let's get it done.