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An opportunity for both parties

Updated: December 3, 2012 10:41AM

The tide is turning. Finally.

As recently as a month ago, I shared the frustration of thousands of Latinos and Americans who have been disillusioned, and sometimes disgusted, by the backlash against Mexicans and other immigrant groups in the last several years.

Now I have a tiny bit of hope.

The re-election of President Obama, driven in part by a Latino vote that favored him 71 percent to 27 percent over Gov. Mitt Romney, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, jarred many hard-line conservatives and forced them to face reality:

The Latino vote will continue to grow and Republicans will be in trouble in future elections without it.

In the days that followed the election, I read comments by former House Speaker and onetime face of the Republican party Newt Gingrich, in which he talked about the dire need to win over Latinos. Sean Hannity of the conservative Fox News made a similar claim.

The divisive rhetoric seems to be diminishing, and I’m optimistic about the future for immigrants in this country. Make that cautiously optimistic.

Once lawmakers get beyond the fiscal cliff, the president must move quickly on overhauling immigration, which he promised to do within days of winning the election. He failed to deliver on a similar promise made in 2008.

“There’s an excellent opportunity for the president to bring a bill before April for bipartisan legislation,” Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told me by phone. “He’s got Republicans interested in being bipartisan.”

A walloping defeat in an election usually helps bring the losing party to the table.

It’s about time millions of undocumented workers currently living in the U.S. be given a path to establish legal residency and eventually gain citizenship.

I expect the Republican Party to remain divided on immigration, but there should be more Republicans willing to join a faction of the party that has long understood how vital Latinos are to the American economy and society. Wilkes calls that the George W. Bush wing of the party.

“Then you’ve got the other wing,” he added. “They want to look at the Latino vote like the black community. They’ve used the black community to drive a wedge and pick up a larger share of white votes.”

Wilkes emphasized the need for the Obama administration to move fast, before mid-term elections near and lawmakers start to balk. “In primaries, some [lawmakers] could go negative on immigration,” he said.

That approach got Romney through the primaries, though he paid dearly in the long run.

In Illinois, a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to test for and receive drivers’ licenses may come to fruition. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has pushed for it for more than a decade.

“We have 250,000 unlicensed immigrant drivers who aren’t tested, trained or certified,” ICIRR CEO Lawrence Benito told me by phone. “Our roads would be safer if everyone is licensed and insured. People think it’s a practical, common sense safety approach.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn have voiced support; former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, is pushing for bipartisan support. Benito speaks confidently about getting it.

“There is no question,” he said, “that Latinos and immigrants played a decisive role in the presidential election. Republicans and suburban Democrats who have not been good on our issues are looking at ways to reach out.”

We have reached a pivotal point, and they need to get with the times.

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