By Mike Lillis - 11/07/12 10:04 PM EST
An outpouring of support from Hispanic voters helped to usher President Obama to a resounding reelection win Tuesday, and immigration reformers say those dynamics have set the stage for a bipartisan reform deal next year.
"The Republican Party has to decide: Do they want to take this issue off the table? Or do they want to be a whites-only party that will make it impossible to compete?" Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for immigration reform, said Wednesday.
Sharry predicted that immigration reform "will quickly become the top legislative priority after fiscal and budget issues" next year.
"The election was a game-changer," he said, "and the Republicans will see coming to the table as a political imperative."
Rep. Luis Gutierrez delivered a similar message in the wake of the election. Warning that that "the road to the White House goes through Latino neighborhoods," the Illinois Democrat said Romney's shift to the right on immigration during the GOP primaries buried his chances of winning the presidency.
"Mitt Romney and the Republicans drank the anti-immigrant Kool-Aid during the primaries," he said Wednesday in a statement, "and they never recovered."
But Gutierrez, who's lashed out at Obama for not pushing harder for immigration reform in his first term, also challenged the president to make it a top priority of his second.
"Let's be clear," he said, "the president and Democrats cannot be satisfied that the other party is repulsive to most Latino voters and lots of other voters as well.
"Democrats must actively attract voters to their positions on jobs, health care, same-sex equality, equal rights, and, especially with Latino voters, immigration reform."
Gutierrez is urging Obama to "call Republicans and Democrats to the White House who want to chart a reasonable course forward on immigration and begin the process of delivering."
There's some evidence that the president intends to do just that.
In an interview with Iowa's Des Moines Register just two weeks ago, Obama said he was "confident" he could enact bipartisan immigration reforms in his second term.
"The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform. And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt," Obama said during an off-the-record interview that later became public. "Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community. And this is a relatively new phenomenon."
The president seems to have hit the nail on the head. Exit polls indicated that Hispanic voters favored Obama this year by a whopping 40 points, 69 percent to 29 percent — an increase of 4 points over his advantage among the demographic four years ago. And while white turnout fell this year as a percentage of total voters, Hispanic turnout ticked up, from 9 to 10 percent.
The changing demographics have prompted a number of prominent conservatives — including former President George W. Bush, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — to warn Republicans to soften their hard line on immigration or risk a long-term backlash from Latino voters at the polls each cycle.
It's advice that Republican congressional leaders have so far ignored. Indeed, when President Bush championed comprehensive immigration reforms in 2007, it was shot down by conservative Republicans who opposed the inclusion of a pathway to legalization for those in the country illegally — a notion critics call "amnesty."
More recently, a filibuster by Senate Republicans killed the House-passed DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to high-achieving illegal immigrant students brought to the country as children.
During the GOP primary, Romney vowed to veto the DREAM Act and promoted tougher enforcement of illegal immigrants, a move designed to distinguish himself from several of his opponents — notably former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who advocated more leniency.
After the primaries, Romney adopted a more centrist immigration position, and his campaign adopted a 38 percent target for Hispanic voters. But advocates say the damage was done.
"Romney's lurch to the right really destroyed his chances," Sharry said. "He made a tactical decision that was terrible strategy. It branded him with the fastest-growing group of voters as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.
"If he'd won 38 percent of the Latino vote," Sharry added, "he'd be president."