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Republican hard-liners softening on immigration
Politics » Growing impact of Latino voters has some in GOP urging a vote on the Dream Act as a start.
First Published Nov 12 2012 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 06 2013 11:32 pm

As the first states turned red for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Leo’s family turned tense.

The 28-year-old undocumented immigrant said they were eating dinner and started to wonder if their hopes for a President Barack Obama victory were misplaced and that Romney and Republican rhetoric on illegal immigration would win the day — and the next four years.

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"I was glued to the TV," he said. "And then he [Obama] finally went over 270 [electoral votes] and we all sort of relaxed."

As a Latino who graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in sociology and who has no current ability to work legally in the United States, he saw the election as a message to both parties to establish some sort of comprehensive immigration reform.

But the message to Republicans was perhaps a bit more urgent.

Obama won the Latino vote by about a 3-to-1 margin, clobbering Romney in states like Nevada and Colorado, and it is forcing Republicans to do some serious soul-searching regarding the issue of immigration.

Republican Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, an outspoken critic of hard-liners on immigration, said a good entry point for the GOP could come as soon as 2013 with Dream Act legislation in Congress.

"That should be done immediately," Shurtleff said. "There will still be a push against it from the extreme right, but that’s not where we need to be as a party."

After the election results, it appears the message was received — from some unlikely sources.

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Changing reality » Media mogul and conservative icon Rupert Murdoch espoused a more moderate approach to immigration after bleak exit polling data for Republicans trickled in. Conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity — long a supporter of tough immigration laws and who once called the Dream Act an "amnesty nightmare" — said this week he had "evolved" on the issue.

"The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records, you can send them home," Hannity said. "But if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done."

According to Pew Hispanic Research, there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. The issue has been a lightning rod, and even measures where there appeared to be broad support — like the Dream Act — failed to clear Congress several times.

The Dream Act even posed problems for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Hatch was an original co-sponsor of the legislation that would have allowed children brought to the country illegally to attain citizenship by either going to school or serving in the military. But Hatch didn’t vote on the legislation when it failed in the Senate two years ago, and he bemoaned the issue had been turned into a political weapon by Democrats.

In the light of Tuesday’s results, however, the recently re-elected Hatch seemed open to it — but only after Congress gets past the impending fiscal cliff.

Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney said immigration is an "issue he cares deeply about," and he "will be returning to Washington to discuss the path forward on immigration reform with his colleagues. This is a tough issue that demands thoughtful policy consideration."

It’s also an issue that Republicans recognize they need to grab hold of because the Latino voting bloc is expanding.

According to Latino Decisions, the Latino electorate accounted for 8 percent of the vote in 2004, 9 percent in 2008 and 10 percent this year. The growth is largely in the West, with states like Nevada and Colorado turning blue for the president in 2008 and this year. According to Pew Hispanic Research, 15.1 percent of eligible voters in Nevada are Hispanic and 13.7 percent in Colorado.

Deisi Gonzalez, a 26-year-old Reno resident who became a U.S. citizen this year and voted for the first time, said she was turned off by Republicans touting "self-deportation" and supporting enforcement-only laws like Arizona’s SB1070 and Utah’s HB497.

She voted for Obama.

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