Inquirer Editorial: Hispanic vote sent a message

Posted: November 12, 2012

If Republicans in Congress needed a push to finally get behind comprehensive immigration reform, Hispanic voters handed them one with President Obama's reelection.

The nation's fastest growing demographic made up 10 percent of the voters in Tuesday's presidential election, and 70 percent of them chose Obama. Even among staunchly Republican Cuban Americans in Florida, Obama got 48 percent of the vote, compared with his 35 percent in 2008, and John Kerry's 29 percent in 2004.

The Hispanic vote was clearly a referendum on immigration, with Latinos expressing their displeasure with the Republican Party's long-standing opposition to a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney never recovered from his "self-deportation" remark during the GOP primary.

Conversely, Obama admitted that immigration reform was one of the biggest failures in his first term, and said it would be a priority in his second one. There is good reason to be optimistic. Republicans in Congress can't afford to ignore political reality after the stinging rebuke they received from Hispanic voters.

Exit polls Tuesday showed 65 percent of voters - including 37 percent of Republicans - support giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status. Congress has come close to providing that in the past. It shouldn't be such a heavy lift for it to reach an acceptable compromise.

Leading the effort ought to be Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who, before he moved right on the issue to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2008, was a leading voice for immigration reform. In 2006, McCain and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) sponsored a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for guest-worker status.

Let's see whether McCain and Obama can use immigration reform as the vehicle to show America that bipartisanship isn't an extinct species in Washington.

If they need inspiration, they can look across the Potomac to Maryland, where voters overwhelmingly approved a state version of the federal legislation dubbed the DREAM Act.

The new law allows all Maryland youngsters, regardless of immigration status, to pay in-state college tuition if they graduate from high school and meet other requirements.

Too often, the opposite has occurred, with states like Arizona, and even towns, like Hazleton in Pennsylvania, enacting their own misguided immigration crackdowns because of the void left by inadequate federal law.

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) now says he's "confident" Republicans can find common ground with Democrats on a comprehensive immigration bill. Let's see them get to work.

Obama made a good first step in June when he issued an executive order that prevents the children of undocumented immigrants who join the military or go to college from being deported. That rule change offers a reprieve to 1.4 million young people who came here before age 16. But it doesn't open a door to citizenship for them or their parents.

Congress can do that, so otherwise law-abiding immigrants can contribute to American society as legally employed taxpayers.

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