Now that Democrats have taken control of both the House and Senate, questions are being asked about what this dramatic turn of events means for the immigration debate and for President Bush's chances to get a comprehensive reform package through Congress.
It could mean quite a bit. President Bush told reporters in his post-election news conference that his administration now had "a good chance" at comprehensive reform, which would include guest workers along with a path to legalization for millions of illegal immigrants. Saying that he hoped Republicans would acknowledge that some of their border security concerns had been addressed, Bush also expressed hope that this was an issue on which he could find common ground with Democrats.
He may be right. The conventional wisdom had been that comprehensive reform -- what the closed-border, closed-mind crowd calls ``amnesty'' -- was dead. Then came the midterm elections. Now what is dead is the conventional wisdom.
Political pundits and congressional observers have been telling us for months that any Republican who jumped on the bandwagon of immigration restrictions and anti-amnesty rhetoric would ride to certain victory. The assumption was that scores of Americans would base their votes on this one issue alone, and that toughness sells -- the tougher the candidate was on illegal immigration, the easier it would be to clinch the election.
Republican members of Congress filmed campaign commercials showing them posing next to border walls or saddling up to ride with posses, all to try to get voters to forget that it was Republicans who helped get us into this mess by refusing to spend the money on border enforcement or stiffening the penalties against employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Personally, I always suspected that the immigration issue wouldn't pay the dividends for the GOP that some people insisted. Not when Republicans seemed so determined to puncture the enthusiasm of their own voters by approving cosmetic enforcement measures while offering no ideas about what to do with 12 million illegal immigrants who are already in this country. Many of the restrictionists who are convinced that this is a national crisis want radical reforms -- illegal immigrants rounded up and deported, the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants denied citizenship, the Army put on the U.S.-Mexico border, a reduction in legal immigration and so on.And what did they get? First, President Bush sent National Guard troops to the border, but ordered them not to do any guarding or interacting with immigrants. In fact, many of the troops aren't even armed and have to rely on the Border Patrol for protection should they run into drug and immigrant smugglers. Then, Congress authorized the building of a border fence but only enough of it to cover about a third of the 2,000-mile frontier. Only a fraction of what the wall is supposed to cost was actually funded.
No wonder the restrictionists were disillusioned. A CNN exit poll found that among voters who listed illegal immigration as their No. 1 issue, 51 percent thought Republicans would do a better job controlling it while 46 percent said Democrats would. That's not much of a gap, given the lengths to which Republicans went to claim this issue as their own -- and at no small cost.
After decades of Latino outreach efforts by Republicans, which culminated in President Bush walking off with 44 percent of the Latino vote in the 2004 election, congressional hard-liners did a good job of blowing up every bridge. Polls taken before the election showed that while immigration didn't start out a top concern for many Latino voters, the issue was likely to influence the choices Latinos made in the voting booths. Tired of being pushed around by opportunistic politicians, many Latinos seemed intent on seizing the opportunity to push back.
That means that Latinos are an important part of the coalition that helped put Democrats back in power, and that should give them some capital. Now all they need to do is cash it for the sake of achieving what a majority of Americans seem to be saying they want -- comprehensive immigration reform and leaders who know the difference between polemics and progress.